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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Battle of the Sexes

In the fall of 1973, a much hyped and televised tennis match played a big part of the women's rights movement at the time.  A record 50 million people watched a game between 55-year-old former tennis champ and self-proclaimed "male-chauvinist pig" Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King, the leading female tennis player at the time.  King insisted that women players should be paid equally to men, and this match was to determine whether or not she was right.  With a trophy, $100,000 and the hopes of women across the US riding on the line, King had her work cut out for her.

Since the outcome of the game and King's eventual victory is well known, the filmmakers behind Battle of the Sexes have made the smart decision to go into the lives of both players leading up to the big match.  This isn't so much a sports underdog movie, as it is the story of both personalities, and how they were handling the pressure leading up to the match.  Both Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, looking the spitting image of the person he's portraying) are given equal time and sympathy by the screenplay credited to Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and the directing team of Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) give the film a light and fun tone, without sugarcoating the importance of the women's rights movement.

As the film opens, King has just become the top female tennis player in America.  As she quickly learns, however, her accomplishment does not carry much weight among the veteran players in the community.  The head of the pro tennis organization, retired player Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), believes that male players are "more exciting to watch", and does not feel that women should be payed equally.  When King learns that she will be paid eight times less than the men for her future tournaments, she takes a stand and creates a women's tournament with eight other players who sign up for her cause.  They are able to get an endorsement from Virginia Slims, with King's manager (Sarah Silverman) encouraging the girls to smoke on camera when they can.  The money from the tobacco company does at least give them money to go on the road, and compete in their own games.

During the cross country tour, King finds herself drawn to a hairstylist named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), who accompanies the women as their personal stylist.  The two women kick off a shy friendship that quickly grows to both of them wanting more from each other.  Soon, they are sharing hotel rooms, and trying to keep things under wraps, although many on the tour suspect that something is going on.  For King, who has a husband back home (Austin Stowell), this could make or break not just her personal life, but also her career, especially if the big company funding their tour were to find out about it.  This not only effects her performance on the tennis court, but makes her tightly wound as her private life possibly spins out of control.

Battle of the Sexes creates some genuine tension with King's situation, especially when one of the other players (Jessica McNamee), who happens to be the only one who has her husband and baby traveling with her, starts to look down on her.  On the other side of the story, we have Bobby Riggs, whose compulsive gambling habits over the years have put his marriage to his wife (Elizabeth Shue) in jeopardy.  She genuinely loves him, but she can't stand that he still gambles, even though he is seeing a therapist (whom he frequently bets with secretly during their sessions) and is going to a support group.  When he wins a Rolls-Royce in a game of chance, and the car is dropped off outside his home, his wife has had enough and kicks him out.  He becomes inspired to create the highly publicized match as a chance to perhaps put his life back together.  King, who is reluctant at first, eventually accepts mostly due to the principle of it.

This leads to some scenes where we get to see how both of the players handled the pressure and expectations leading up to the big match.  King basically locks herself away, taking stock of her life and what she truly wants, while Riggs does a boatload of celebrity appearances (including nude photo shoots) and endorsements.  When we get to the big game itself, it is appropriately exciting and well shot, but what really fascinated me is how the filmmakers use documentary footage of celebrities of the day like Ricardo Montalban and Lloyd Bridges talking about the match and what it stands for.  We also get to see plenty of shots of the audience, and how they were divided in their loyalty to the two players, which is equally fascinating.  What we see in the audience is just as exciting and a sign of the times as the match itself, which is mostly performed by obvious stunt doubles, except for a few close up shots of the two stars. 

Despite its sometimes lightweight and comedic tone (the movie does have a lot of fun with its 70s fashions), Battle of the Sexes still holds a lot of weight, and is just as relevant now as it was 44 years ago.  The fact that the movie actually bothers to dig deeper into the lives of both of the players at the center of it, rather than give us another inspirational story arc, grabbed my attention.  I was further riveted by the fact that the movie truly shows us all angles of the debate that swirled around the highly publicized event.  This is a well-made and even-leveled movie that is not just entertaining, but also stays with you when it's over.

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