Friday, September 29, 2017

Battle of the Sexes: A match made in heaven

Battle of the Sexes (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sexual content and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.29.17

An estimated 90 million people around the world parked in front of TV sets on Sept. 20, 1973, in order to watch what became a defining moment in sports, American culture and — most particularly — the rising momentum for women’s equality.

When she agrees to the challenge issued by Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Billy Jean King
(Emma Stone) also gamely endures the media circus that precedes the historic event.
At the same time, the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” was pure circus.

On top of which, one of the participants was struggling with sexual identity, at a time when such matters scarcely were tolerated in this country, let alone allowed to go public.

That’s a lot of baggage for a single two-hour film to handle, and its success is a tribute to pedigree: Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), along with Academy Award-winning scripter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), have concocted a thoughtful, perceptive and thoroughly entertaining dramedy that blends tender romance, historical context and an undercurrent of sly outrage over the degree of unapologetic chauvinism that was fashionable a mere four decades ago.

Add two stars who skillfully adopt the identities of their real-world counterparts — to a frequently spooky degree — and the result is quite engaging.

The story begins in 1971, as Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and good friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) — a hard-nosed PR and tennis maven — confront longtime tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the insulting disparity between the financial prizes earned by male and female champions. Kramer holds firm with the prevailing view that women aren’t “worth” parity.

In response, King and Heldman — with considerable assistance from King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell) — form their own nascent women’s league (which, within a few years, would become the Women’s Tennis Association). It’s a gutsy move, since Kramer immediately expels them from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. The players — which include King, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and half a dozen others — nonetheless adopt a spunky guerrilla spirit, booking their own venues, posting promotional banners, and selling their own tickets.

Matters improve when the group receives full sponsorship from Philip Morris, for what becomes known as the Virginia Slims Tour.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), decades removed from his professional championships in the 1940s, frets over his own obsolescence. He chafes behind a useless desk job, supported by a wealthy wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who is losing her tolerance for his chronic gambling habit. But as a longtime hustler and media-savvy opportunist, Riggs smells publicity after learning what King and her cohorts are up to.

And so comes the challenge, from the man who proudly promises to keep the “show” in chauvinism.

Mainstream viewers — as opposed to rabid sports fans — may have forgotten that Court was the first woman to accept Riggs’ dare. She was the logical opponent; as of mid-1973, she was the world’s top female player.

This film suggests that Court took that prized slot because King’s head wasn’t in the game at the moment, having been distracted by her love-at-first-sight relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), first encountered when the entire women’s team gets makeovers prior to a media event.

This developing affair moves the film in a fresh direction that gives Stone ample opportunity to display the depth of her impressive acting chops, in many cases via her conflicted expressions. Beaufoy repeatedly affirms that Billy Jean loves and respects her husband; they’re friends as well as spouses and business partners. More crucially, she knows full well that athletic skill is 99 percent focus, and that this ... whatever it is, with Marilyn ... is diluting that concentration.

Not to mention her awareness that the entire future of the nascent women’s tennis movement depends, in great part, on her ability to deliver on the court.

All that said, there’s no denying the sweetness of the blossoming affair, and the delicacy with which the scenes between Stone and Riseborough are handled. The collateral damage to Larry King — and Stowell handles his role with equal sensitivity — is heartbreaking.

And yet the frequent bedroom scenes between Billy Jean and Marilyn become distracting, pulling focus from the film as a whole. There comes a point when our sympathy slides away from Marilyn, and she begins to look and sound selfish. We want her to do the right thing, which — even if only temporarily — mandates that she remove herself from these events.

Given the similar skill with which Carell plays Riggs, it also would have been nice to spend a bit more time with him during the ramp-up to his infamous challenge. For openers, a bit of back-story on the sudden introduction of Riggs’ young adult son, Larry (Lewis Pullman), would have been handy. The lad springs out of nowhere; he also remains under-developed.

Carell has a great time with the role, embracing the persona of unrepentant hustler and unapologetic media jester. Riggs’ outlandish publicity stunts were audacious at the time, and still eyebrow-lifting when re-created here. But this film also implies that it all was an act: that Riggs shrewdly adopted the guise of über-chauvinist because it ginned up hype and fat financial sponsorships. Carell plays the role that way; we see the twinkle in his eyes.

But he’s not a one-dimensional burlesque. Carell’s Riggs is the ultimate narcissist: fueled by a desperation to prove that he can master the world on his own terms, an abject terror that he’ll fail, and a defiant refusal to follow convention. Despite such qualities, he’s also capable of humble grace; watch Carell’s expression and body language, during Riggs’ poignant, third-act scene with his wife.

Alan Cumming stands tall among the co-stars, in his fascinating portrayal of Cuthbert Collingwood “Ted” Tinling, the daring fashion designer who forged modern sports looks, and introduced bold, bright colors to the outfits worn by the Virginia Slims players. Tinling also is gay and not entirely closeted, and thus becomes Billy Jean’s unlikely confidant.

Cumming gets many of the funniest one-liners, all delivered with masterful timing; he also shares the film’s most intimate moment with Stone, right before the film concludes.

Silverman is a hoot as the chain-smoking, tough-talking Heldman: wickedly quick with a caustic put-down, and absolutely believable as somebody who could transform the world. Fred Armisen is subtly creepy as Rheo Blair, a “nutritional guru” who pops up just prior to the climactic match, putting Riggs on a regimen of 415 vitamins every day.

Pullman is superb as the smarmy, condescending, and yet oh-so-polite Kramer. Even at her most furious, Billy Jean acknowledges that Kramer is a gentleman, and it’s true; Pullman makes the man gracious and well-mannered. But he’s also the villain of this piece, prone to matter-of-fact displays of breathtaking sexism ... which, sadly, remain just as relevant today.

Dayton, Faris and Beaufoy are well aware of this; indeed, their film unfolds pretty much the way events actually went down, which — in several ways — is just as horrifying to today’s audiences, as it was to more enlightened individuals almost half a century ago.

The drama notwithstanding, the film’s most remarkable feat is the jaw-dropping authenticity with which Stone and Carell are showcased during the climactic tennis footage. The verisimilitude of their off-court behavior is impressive enough; the manner in which editor Pamela Martin and special effects supervisor Sam Dean match the actors to the suspenseful game-playing sequences, is nothing short of amazing.

On top of which, Dayton and Faris maintain suspense. Even knowing the story’s outcome — as most viewers will — we still get drawn into edge-of-the-seat uncertainty, and cheer the results.

Battle of the Sexes is crowd-pleasing entertainment, an acting showcase, an invaluable historical document, and a sly reminder that fairness and justice often are achieved only through great effort ... and that such battles must be fought — and won — repeatedly.

No comments:

Post a Comment