Saturday, November 18, 2017
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Late in Battle of the Sexes, we see real photos of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, black and white shots from their 1970s period. King looks pugnacious, energetic, vibrant. Riggs, posing as he did for a mock Playgirl centerfold, is grotesque. In fact, an older lady in the audience seated near me let out a shriek when she saw the image of Riggs. It was as if his obnoxious presence still perturbs women 40 years after the ultimate "male chauvinist pig" challenged King, one of the top players in women's tennis, to a match. The event became a pop cultural phenomenon and aired on ABC on a Thursday night in September of 1973 (probably preempting Kung Fu and The Streets of San Francisco), even though Riggs was 55 years-old and King was in her athletic prime. In 2001, ABC presented When Billie Beat Bobby, an entertaining piece starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver. I kept thinking of that one, even as Emma Stone and Steve Carrell did their best to present the story again. Stone and Carrell are major talents, but too cute, like Barbie and Ken dolls cast as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammet.
Carrell, for the most part, is a reasonable choice to play Riggs. He may seem a little too burly for an over-the-hill tennis legend who was spending his retirement years hustling his pals at the local gentleman's club, but Carrell's got the devil-may-care silliness and the "Why should I give a fuck what you think?" attitude (his speech at a gambler's anonymous meeting, where he tells people their real problem is that they're just shitty gamblers, is the highlight of the movie). Stone, though, is too far from the cloth from which King was cut. (Hunter played King as a muscled up warrior, worn down by outside pressure, not battle.) Stone is too delicate boned to play King, more like a JV cheerleader than a tennis beast, and when she speaks with confidence that she'll whip some opponent, we don't believe her. Even when she decides to embrace her lesbian feelings and have a fling with her hair stylist, it's as if she's a nervous teen going on a first date with her best friend's father.
It's nice to see a few familiar faces from the past, including Elisabeth Shue as Rigg's long suffering wife, and Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer, the arrogant tennis promoter who doesn't want to pay the women as much as the men. Neither gets a chance to do much in the movie, but they show how not to overact, which Sarah Silverman can't avoid doing as the agent of the women's team, holding her cig like Bette Davis, complete with bride of Frankenstein lightning stripes in her hair. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris demonstrate none of the finesse or ingenuity that made their debut feature, Little Miss Sunshine (2006) so watchable. It's as if they were baffled by the sheer scope of the King-Riggs match, and with "women's lib" sounding like a fad from the seventies, they decided to be more fashionable and make a heartfelt coming of age story for lesbians.
I'm not sure what to say about Simon Beaufoy's screenplay. Beaufoy, an Oscar winner, has written some highly regarded films, including The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Battle of the Sexes has elements of those movies in that it's about people having to perform on a grand stage while putting their personal lives on the line, but he's not up to the task of jamming a year's worth of history into a comfy 2-hour format. Some of it feels too coincidental, too pat. With the ladies' flamboyant wardrobe designer (Alan Cumming) popping up every few minutes like a one man Greek chorus, offering glib one-liners, or giving Billie Jean a comforting hug at the right moment, it's as if Beaufoy felt tennis wasn't so interesting, so he padded the story with gays and camp humor. And because the focus is mostly on King while Riggs is just a comic foil, the message is skewed.
So Battle of The Sexes, intending itself as an inspirational pageant for the LGTBQ community, bends itself to accommodate everyone in its target audience. For fans of King and her considerable achievements, she's portrayed as a serious but vulnerable athlete trying to change things for women's tennis. For fans of Emma Stone, her love scenes with Andrea Riseborough are downright cuddly, though "Crimson and Clover" on the soundtrack was used to better effect when Christina Ricci and Charlize Theron fell for each other in Monster (2004). For those who dislike heterosexual men, they are all portrayed here as flabby creeps. That is, except for King's husband, who gently applies ice to his wife's knees even as he realizes her heart belongs to another woman. As played by Austin Stowell, he's the dream man for sexually confused females everywhere: the handsome, non-judgemental doormat.