Battle of the Sexes will be released in selected Malaysian cinemas on the 25th of January 2018, as part of the FINEST FIVE — a collaborative effort between 20th Century Fox and GSC International Screens.
Outside a hotel lobby, Billie Jean King’s husband, Larry King (not to be confused with the popular talk show host) has an exchange of words with Billie Jean’s secret new lover, Marilyn Barnett. “I’m just the husband, you’re just a phase. Tennis is her true love.” When told well, I love stories like this. Stories about people whose lives aren’t centred around other people, but their passion. I can relate. For Billie Jean, it’s tennis. Me, I love movies. It’s something most people will not understand.
Some of my friends think I’m crazy for watching more than 200 movies a year. “You watched The Last Jedi six times in the cinema? What’s wrong with you?” a friend of mine once asked. Film (and film criticism) gives me a sense of happiness and fulfillment unlike any other. Cinema is my favourite place in the world. There is a famous saying (apparently by Diego Maradona himself): “Football isn’t a game, nor a sport, it’s a religion.” Film is mine.
Tennis is Billie Jean’s, played here by Emma Stone. It is what keeps her alive. It is the reason she wakes up in the morning every day. It is 1973 and Billie Jean King is the best women’s tennis player in the world. Our story begins when she finds out that Jack Kramer, a bigshot tennis promoter decides to run a major tournament in which the prize money for the women athletes is one-eighth the men’s.
She doesn’t demand a higher prize money for women, only a fair one. At the time, Billie Jean King sold out stadiums. People loved watching her play, probably just as much as they loved watching the men. So why should the prize money be less for them? She makes valid points. Jack Kramer does not. But this isn’t about logic, it is about ego. It is about a patriarchal society led and managed by chauvinistic pigs who at their core, truly and genuinely believe that men are better than women. At its core, Battle of the Sexes isn’t about tennis. Tennis is the court, liberation is the game.
But running their own tournament and getting people to join is easy. Perhaps that doesn’t prove anything to the chauvinistic pigs. We hear some of them say “I enjoy watching women in short skirts handling balls.” No, we need something that packs a punch — a knockout blow.
Insert compulsive gambler and former tennis world champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who comes out of retirement and challenges the best women’s tennis player in the world to a match. But Bobby doesn’t just do that. He makes a scene — Billie Jean calls it a circus act. Bobby goes to the media and cuts promos that are sure to put a smile on the face of Rowdy Roddy Piper. “I love women… when they’re in the kitchen and bedroom.” This, of course, leads to one of the most popular sporting events in history billed The Battle of the Sexes.
What screenwriter Simon Beaufoy does so well is, pen a story that is more than just about the match. At the time, the match was more than just a match. Experts may tell you that it’s not Billie Jean’s best match from a technical perspective. In fact, the match itself is a joke, much like the fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather. It is nothing but a publicity stunt.
But how this differs from the recent boxing facade, is that it was a symbol of hope and liberation for women in America and across the globe. And for that, it is the most important tennis match in the legendary sporting icon’s career. Who knows how different our social landscape would be like today, if it wasn’t for The Battle of the Sexes.
Simon Beaufoy also writes characters we understand and care about, with performances by a stellar cast, to match. There are two kinds of pigs in this movie. On one end, we have Bobby Riggs. The man sure knows how to put on a show. He uses every opportunity that comes his way to crap on women — magazines, TV, you name it. He cracks jokes, belittles them and even inspires men to wear T-shirts that read ‘chauvinistic’ — who does that? In one video shoot, Bobby Riggs, who has his hands around the shoulders of a few women, says, “I’m going to take all of them home, to do my laundry.”
But though he doesn’t admit it, there’s something about him that tells you that it’s all just an act. He says what he says because he knows it will SELL, not because he truly believes it. After all, it’s obvious that his wife is the breadwinner in the family and he has no issues with that. Steve Carell is excellent in this role. Not only does he look the part, he nails the exaggerated mannerisms too. There is a sense of duality to his character that I really enjoyed.
On the other end, we have Jack Kramer, brought to life by Bill Pullman. To him it’s real. He genuinely believes that women are less capable than men. He’s the kind of guy who says things like, “I’m not chauvinistic. I’ve been happily married for 30 years,” like that one racist guy you know, who claims he’s not racist because he has a buddy of a different race. Riggs may have been the symbol, but Kramer is the true villain.
And then we have Billie Jean, played wonderfully by Emma Stone. Stone has been on a roll lately, segueing her career from the comedy girl (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to someone who showcases a broader range of acting chops. She’s good in “Birdman”, great in “La La Land”, and here, she’s on top of her game once again.
Battle of the Sexes is important, inspiring and bloody damn good. But what prevents it from being great, is that it doesn’t strip away the skin and flesh and lay the bones on the table, both, on a personal level and when it comes to tennis. Especially when it comes to tennis. On a personal level, we don’t feel the pain and anguish Billie Jean goes through. It is there, but not delved into as deeply as I would’ve liked.
Surely, her marriage that was slowly starting to fail, having to be a closeted lesbian (or bisexual), and the constant barrage of nonsense by the media would have been more uncomfortable and mentally strenuous than how it is played out in this movie. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris dig deep, just not deep enough.
The directors are also very obviously not nearly as passionate about tennis as Billie Jean. I get that tennis isn’t the point of this film and it shouldn’t be. But when making a movie about a woman who lives and breathes TENNIS, we need to feel that passion emit through the screen and engulf us. I was about to use “Whiplash” as an example, in which we could feel the character’s blood and sweat splatter on our skin as he plays the drums so ferociously and obsessively. Then again, Whiplash is a movie about music.
So, we can look to Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, another movie that is more about feminism than it is about the sport itself. There, the intensity of the sport is felt and the final match between the two wrestlers is suspenseful. We know who is going to win, but Tiwari makes us second guess ourselves, and ask what if? Here, we know who is going to win and we just watch it unfold.
Battle of the Sexes is a completely different beast when it shifts focus to Billie Jean’s love affair with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). This is where the directorial efforts of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris truly shine. I did not expect it to be so subdued, nuanced and internal. I mentioned how the sequences in and around tennis in this film aren’t gripping; the romance between Marilyn and Billie Jean is.
The early scene in the hair salon is captivating. The chemistry between Stone and Riseborough is overwhelming. It will send shivers down your spine. My heart raced when they embraced. I wonder how homophobes would feel when they watch this movie. How can anyone resent something so beautiful? The final line in the movie is impactful: “One day we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.” It’s been 45 years since the match. We’re still not quite there yet, but we will, eventually.
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Battle of the Sexes
Battle of the Sexes is important and inspiring. But what prevents it from being great, is that it doesn't strip away the skin and flesh and lay the bones on the table.