Battle only provides part of the story
The title of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ film Battle of the Sexes refers to far more than the tennis match at its core. Yes, it’s a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of the grudge match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that took place in 1973, but it’s also a portrait of a transitional time in our social history, an era in which women were beginning to speak out for equal rights in the workplace and at home, efforts that were constantly being thwarted by many members of the opposite sex.
The battle starts from frame one as we see King (Emma Stone) going toe-to-toe with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), head of the International Tennis Federation, over the inequity in pay between male and female players. This argument is not settled to her satisfaction so along with publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and eight other women players, the women break off to form their own professional organization, a venture that starts slow out of the gate but eventually becomes a major force in the world of tennis.
Meanwhile, former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is struggling with a gambling addiction and the fact that he feels he has no purpose in life. He continues to hustle side games for large payoffs – much to the dismay of his wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) – but feels as though he is simply drifting through life. However, an off-hand comment from a friend gives him a million-dollar idea. He proposes a single match between him and the best women’s player in the world, contending that as a man, he will beat her handily.
This circus quickly picks up steam and before you know it, Riggs is destroying Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) on national television. Infuriated by the result, King accepts Riggs’ standing offer to play him, and a date in the Houston Astrodome is set.
Like many biographical movies, this one bites off more than it can chew and ends up giving short shrift to some key moments in both the main characters’ lives. While the burgeoning love affair between King and hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) is included, it comes off as a convenient thorny plot point and the overall affect it had on King’s life is only touched upon. Meanwhile, Riggs is presented as nothing more than a buffoon, which, in large part, he was. Carell does a great job mugging and tearing up the scenery and sells one of the few moments we see the man displaying some genuine emotion. However, we never know what makes this guy tick. Why does he alienate his wife and son? Why is he compelled to always be in the spotlight? These issues are never addressed, and had they been, it would have made for a more compelling film.
The final match and all that leads up to it is fascinating and well executed, and it’s almost enough to save the film. This is a time machine of a movie if there ever was one and its sense of nostalgia is its strongest suit. Had they delved a bit more into the characters on its stage, in particular the friendship that grew between King and Riggs after the famous match, Battle would have transcended the sports genre which it strives to do. As it is, it feels as though we’re getting only part of the story, with many of the best parts being left out.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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