Friday, September 22, 2017

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES” PROVES THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

Original caricature by Jeff York of Emma Stone as Billie Jean King in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. (copyright 2017)
All period pieces are commentaries on our modern world. Is it because things don’t change that much from decade to decade, or century to century? Perhaps, but the essential makeup of mankind isn’t altered nearly as much as we’d think it would be by progress or time. Instead, many of our instincts, from the basest of urges to the most intellectual rigors, remain consistent no matter what period. Thus, the fight for sexual equality today isn’t all that different from the one waged in 1973 as proven by the savvy new movie BATTLE OF THE SEXES.

In fact, as you watch this clever take on how tennis player Billie Jean King battled both sexism at large, and specifically, male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, you realize the struggle hasn't gone away. It certainly exists all too blatantly in today's politics, economy, and issues of civil rights. White patriarchy is still trying to thwart those unlike them. Thus, this film is as timely as it is entertaining.

In the 1970's, King was the top ranked female tennis player in the world, but she tried to lift the boats for all of the women on the tour. She fought valiantly for years to raise tournament pay, striving to make it equal to that of men. And she not only helped changed the game of tennis for the better in doing so, King became a feminist icon who helped advance women's liberation far beyond her sport. Unfortunately, her achievements seems to be falling backwards today as rampant sexism is returning with a vengeance to the world in the workplace, on campuses, currently on social media. Indeed, male patriarchy remains in power, women and minorities are marginalized far too often, and that makes this movie's relevance importance. Truly, it's suggesting that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is not just a detailed and vivid portrait of tennis history, it's a stinging rebuke of a nation that should know better how to behave by now. Interestingly, in the previews, this film was sold as a comedy. Sure, casting Steve Carell as the aging tennis hustler Riggs and Emma Stone as the cool and confidant King ensured its comic pedigree. And indeed, the film has a lot of big, boisterous laughs. However, most of the ones heard in the audience I saw it with, came at the outrageous sexist behavior that existed in every corner of the tennis world at that time. The humor in BATTLE OF THE SEXES is pointedly dark as it showcases the idiotic and casual sexism that characterized the period, such as Riggs' blatant public declarations that a woman's place was in the bedroom and the kitchen, not the tennis court, full stop.

And even though tennis and the women's tour become a sensation that decade, with female athletes like King, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Rosie Casals, and teenager Chris Evert helping the sport reach unparalleled popularity, too many men were still unwilling to give them proper credit for it. Instead, the powers that be all but went out of their way to insult and demean the female players consistently. Men like Jack Kramer, a former pro turned United States Tennis Association big wig, ensured that the women were paid significantly less, treated as afterthoughts, and dismissed as "good for girls" athletes who could never challenge male prowess.

King didn't suffer such fools and stood up to Kramer, leaving the USTA and taking the whole of the female game with her. King was instrumental in establishing a league of their own, the Virginia Slims Tour, and it became a progressive and galvanizing 'work place' for the female stars. The tour took care of its players significantly better than Kramer, et al. did, raised the prize money, increased public relations, and filled the stadiums with avid fans.  
Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. (copyright 2017)
Kramer is, in fact, the villain of this piece here, not Riggs, and he's played with a slimy smile by veteran actor Bill Pullman. Riggs may have been just as sexist as Kramer, but the script's viewpoint is that it was more of an act for him. Riggs barked a lot about male prowess, but most of it was to raise his PR profile. Casting a utterly lovable star like Carell cements that take, and most of his outrageous lines aimed at the fairer sex are practically delivered with a wink. The fact is, and the film gets this totally right, Riggs was far more interested in making a buck than besting the fairer sex. He was a hustler who'd play all sorts of tennis exhibitions to remain in the limelight and make a fast buck. He dressed in zany costumes, like Little Bo Peep, or played with handicaps, like a frying pan for a racket, all to showcase his chutzpah. Riggs was less of a male chauvinist and much more of a craven opportunist.

In many ways, Riggs was trying to fit into a world that displayed rampant discrimination against him too. At 55, twenty-five years past his athletic prime, Riggs felt obsolete. He was reduced to trading upon his past prowess with pals and hangers on to make a buck, and never fit into the stiff corporate world that his patrician wife got him employment in. One of the funniest moments in the movie shows Riggs bat a crumpled piece of paper into his office waste basket with his tennis racket, showing that old habits die hard. Bobby loved his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, strong, tan and gorgeous in the role) but didn't fit in her world. He thrived in the world of hustlers, gamblers, and card players. And he challenged King to an exposition match to hopefully score a big payday. King was wise to decline, as she took the game serious, but top female player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) liked the idea of a quick purse and big PR so she agreed to Riggs' challenge when he called upon her, his second choice. 

The match between Riggs and Court took place on Mother’s Day in 1973, and it became known as the "Mother's Day Massacre." The film treats it almost as if it's public hanging, with the ramifications of such a top player like Court, so young at 29, losing so definitively to the old man Riggs. He trounced her in straight sets, and as King watched it on TV, she knew she had to rise next to address Riggs' challenge to the women's game. If she didn't, she'd forfeit all the strides about equality that she had argued. And if she lost the match to Riggs, she'd lose the argument about expectation regarding equal pay.

Yet, the superstar had other issues to contend with as well at the time. The 29-year-old wife of promoter Larry King (not that Larry King) found herself falling for a comely hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Suddenly, the tennis ace started questioning her sexual identity as well as her marriage vows. King worried that the truth of her affair would come out and hurt her career and cause as well. These are the scenes where Stone's performance is at its strongest. She captures the simultaneous joy and angst of coming to terms with her bisexuality, aching to be understood and loved, but uncertain of her footing in the heterosexual or gay world, let alone the public light of celebrity. 

There was a lot at stake for King, and in its way, as much for Riggs. And the movie treats it all seriously. Both King and Riggs were trying to figure out where they stood in the world, one battling sexism, the other ageism. Their exhibition match was thought of as a circus at the time, but that take is rejected here. This film wisely plays it as important as it was, focusing more on the tense match than the bread and circuses surrounding it.

Playing all the different nuances of their characters, Carell and Stone give two of the year's best performances. Riggs is a clown in many ways, and Carell makes him endlessly funny, but he finds the tragedy in the man as well. And Stone continues to amaze with each new step in her young career. Here, she not only captures all the interiors of King, but she also does a tremendous job duplicating her voice, gait, and definitive playing style.


Giving sharp support to these two vivid star turns are the aforementioned Riseborough, Shue and Pullman, as well as Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, the promoter and manager of the Slims tournament, Natalie Morales as the no-nonsense Casals, and Alan Cumming as Ted Tingling, King’s friend, designer, and confidante. He cautioned her to not expect too much too soon in the battle against societal norms. It was still a tumultuous time, he argued, but progress would come. These words couldn't ring more true today what with many of those in power willing to vote for a new healthcare bill that would not ensure maternity coverage for all women and set back other civil rights achievements as well. The battle goes on and on and on.

The film recreates the 1970's period perfectly too, particularly through the stellar Linus Sandren cinematography. His lensing employs that ubiquitous soft focus that was paramount then, and his work here should be remembered when the Oscar nominations come out early next year. Mary Zophres’ costuming is award-worthy as well. The clothes are amusing without edging into parody. And hair stylist Alyson Black-Barrie was wise to not overdo the sideburns and bangs of Riggs here as his trendy bowl cut made him look silly. 

Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay is fast-moving, smart, and hits all the best highlights from the true story, though one does wish there were more scenes between King and Riggs. Some more substantive talk between King and her girlfriend could've deepened their moments together as well. Riseborough does as much as she can with her part, but it's still the one that is underwritten. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a superb job of bringing all the characters to life, as well as handling all the period details. They're especially adept at seamlessly blending the King and Riggs stunt doubles into the action scenes with the performances by Stone and Carell, not to mention their discreet inclusion of historical footage into the editing. 

At the end of BATTLE OF THE SEXES, audiences will walk out of the theater satisfied by one of the better films this year. They'll also realize that the fight continues for equality, as much an issue today as it was back then. We've come a long way, baby, but not far enough. Women are still fighting for equal pay, members of the LGBTQ community are still fighting for basic civil rights, and presidential administrations still have far too many Jack Kramer-types in their service undermining the majority of Americans. The game of tennis uses the term love, and God knows the world could use more of it as this film cleverly points out.

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