Monday 16 October 2017

Battle Of The Sexes (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: Former world champion tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) makes a public bet: $100,000 to any female player that can beat him on the court. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), as a means to show that female tennis players deserve equal pay as the men, accepts the bet. With Riggs’ media circus hyping up the main event, and King trying to juggle her professional life with her blooming attraction to hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), the stakes are set for what would become one of the most famous sporting events in history.

I’m convinced that Stone isn’t acting here; she is Billie Jean King, far as I’m concerned. Between how she handles the main plot, the feminist determination driving her and even the romantic side of things, she completely absorbs the role to create a performance that will likely go down as one of her all-time best. Carell, who has had tremendous character success with directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris in the past with Little Miss Sunshine, continues to show his woefully-underappreciated talent for character acting as the hustling show-boater, flaunting his crowd-gathering chauvinism with enough clarity that it is mostly just for the cameras, both in and out of universe.
Riseborough as Billie’s lover is very grounded, and their relationship wins a lot of points on authenticity and bringing out the sensuality in something as innocuous as getting a haircut. Given how this subplot holds up a large amount of the film’s pathos, Riseborough’s performance had to hold up and thankfully she more than delivers. Sarah Silverman gets a lot of laughs as King’s publicist. Bill Pullman gets a lot of knowing scorn as the upfront sexist overseer. Alan Cumming as what is essentially Billie’s sassy gay friend is well done, adding an uplifting coda to the film’s finale. Elizabeth Shue as Rigg’s wife fits in nicely, Austin Stowell as Billie’s husband brings a surprisingly level-headed depiction of marital jealousy, and Jessica McNamee as tennis player Margaret Court brings a weird-but-still-resonant amount of presentism to her depiction of the now-famously homophobic figure.

A common trick amongst filmmakers nowadays, as an initial showing of adherence to period detail, is mocking up old-school renditions of company logos. Sure enough, we get that here with the Fox Searchlight and it’s a fitting preamble for this film. Even as someone who doesn’t take as much issue with anachronisms in cinema, the amount of period detail here is genuinely impressive. From the costumes to the visuals, right down to the 70’s-era sunkissed look of the actors, this lives and breathes the soul of the time, something that makes the commentary within hit even harder, modernist though it may be.
The part where this reaches its height is in how it affects the relationship between Billie and Marilyn. Back when I looked at Carol, I mentioned that the way the central relationship was portrayed felt too out-of-time to really sink in, especially with how muddled the intent ultimately became. Here, the film ends up highlighting how to do that same idea and do it right. The relationship itself is shown in a very realistic manner, with Stone and Riseborough making for a very cute couple in their own right, and the treatment of said relationship highlights both how genuine the coupling is and the inherent taboo that it sat in at the time the film takes place. It shows an honest and nowhere-near-oversexualised lesbian relationship and manages to do so without contemporary attitudes clouding the reality. Because of this, Cumming’s final message at the end hits even harder because not only do we see the underlying prejudice against non-straight sexuality, but also the sense of triumph knowing how those same relationships are viewed now (at least in the U.S.).

The phrase ‘battle of the sexes’ has always had a certain amount of sensationalism attached to it; this epic confrontation between two representative parties where the ultimate victor could end up setting some form of precedent when it comes to treatment of the given gender. Dayton and Faris have always shown a certain grim understanding of the ways women are portrayed in media, from the scathing crackdown on child beauty pageants in Little Miss Sunshine to the notion of wish fulfilment present in Ruby Sparks, and this is no exception. Riggs’ original gambit isn’t shown as any kind of earnest depiction of professional sexism, but rather as just him taking an issue of the time and pushing some money into it. The man is shown as a crowd-gatherer, if not always a crowd-pleaser, in how he intentionally sets up the main conflict as a show of sensationalism that he can use to fuel his love for taking monetary risks.
Billie, on the other hand, may want for monetary gain in the form of equal pay for female tennis players, but her stakes in the event are much more universal. In the face of the rampant sexism of the time, from Jack Kramer’s self-deceiving reasons for the wage gap to Court describing Billie’s relationship as “sin” and the natural conclusion of having women share beds with each other (and in a film full of playing for the cameras, this is actually accurate to the character’s views in the real world), she needs to win and make her case for the agency of female athletes.

That’s the thing about setting precedent, whether it’s legal or social: Facetiousness rarely ends up factoring into how it all gets remembered. Riggs may be playing everything up for the attention, but he’s still showcasing a very real and still-present mindset concerning the treatment of women; this battle of the sexes may be a marketing ploy, but as the real world still remembers the match between Riggs and Court as the “Mother’s Day Massacre”, it’s still a real battle with consequences based on who wins. And what’s more, because the film makes it clear just how much has been hyped up for the publicity in-universe, the match itself has real weight to it.
As someone with no real interest in sports, particularly if I’m just watching someone else participate rather than doing it myself, it is quite surprising that the titular match is as gripping as it is; both in its own right and because of the build-up given to it. Billie wants to shut out the media circus and just play, letting her actions speak for themselves and those of her allies; Riggs may be milking the public but his gambling addiction, for as both hilarious and affecting as it can get, gives him a compulsion to make it all pay off. This is what makes this sports movie succeed at the end of the day: Solid characters on both sides, with each given their impetus and reasons to succeed, combined with a real sense of urgency to make the act of two people hitting a fuzzy green apple back and forth feel important. And looking back on the events of the film nowadays, it still is important.

All in all, this is the kind of sports film that even shiftless layabouts like me can get into; as timely as it is amazingly dedicated to its own era. The acting is phenomenal, the attention to detail makes the events feel tangible and real (a major boon for any biographical picture), the balancing of humour and pathos matches Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris’ pedigree, and the writing by Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy highlights the media spin on the actual events while also emphasizing the social and societal stakes of said events to make the drama swing hard. It will definitely bring a smile to the faces of the LGBT community in the U.S., showing one of the roots that led to their eventual victory, but here in Australia, especially with the inclusion of Margaret Court, it will most likely end up as yet another signifier that it is time to make the change. Whether that change will be made anytime soon remains to be seen.

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