BATTLE OF THE SEXES Movie Review

By Victoria Alexander, Film Critic

Las Vegas Informer

Emma Stone is dazzling. She is more Billie Jean than Billie Jean.

If BATTLE OF THE SEXES had been made any other time in the past, Billie Jean King’s “authentic” self (as it is known today) would have been whitewashed. Her husband Larry King would have been portrayed as her anchor, support, healer and all-around terrific guy.

Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a famous No. 1 tennis champion in the 40s. He had his time dominating on the grass court and in the sun. But, as we say here in Las Vegas – he was also a  “degenerate gambler” –  with the kind of buffoonery and likability that made him a lot of friends and poker buddies. As Bobby would have said, you are only a “degenerate gambler” if you always lose. Winning a Rolls Royce from a friend proves his style of gambling was an art in itself.

How did Bobby manage to get himself an heiress as a wife and a “no show” job at her Daddy’s company? Priscilla Riggs (Elisabeth Shue) must have been either a fascinating woman to put up with Bobby or the dullest woman living on her Daddy’s money. Just one scene could have delved into their peculiar marriage. But it worked. I just want to know how.

A group of nine female tennis players on the Women’s Tennis Association circuit are under tour “nanny” Gladys Heldman’s  (Sarah Silverman) care. Billie is the star player and soon resents the fact that women players do not earn as much as the men do. She and Gladys go to tour promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman – did you see his tour de force performance as a practicing masochist in THE SINNER?), asking him to increase the women’s purse at his upcoming Pacific Southwest Open.

Kramer refuses and threatens Billie with explosion from the Women’s Tennis Association.

Billie decides to organize a tournament in Houston the same week as Kramer’s and all the team members sign symbolic $1 contracts. The tournament is a big success and Gladys, founder of World Tennis magazine, has gotten the team its first brand endorsement from Virginia Slims. No more two-to-a-motel-room. Lots of cigarettes.

As the money riff between women’s tennis and men’s tennis gains national attention, U.S. men – this was before they started drumming circles and searching for their power animal – began the battle cry: female tennis players could never be as good as male tennis players.

Bobby proposes a Battle of the Sexes match between himself and the No. 1 women’s tennis player. Having soundly and efficiently beat the No. 1 ranked women’s player, Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Bobby is riding the wave of championship. Billie Jean had just lost a match to Margaret and knew that Margaret just “choked”.

Billie Jean decides to stand up for the women of tennis. And win the $100,000 prize money.

Bobby, taking the torch as “male chauvinist pig” headliner, keeps the public enthralled with his over-the-top antics. He’s a publicity machine. At 55 years old Bobby forgot that tennis is a running game.

Why did Billie Jean lose to Margaret? Guilt, conflict of emotions, finding her authentic self, awakening her emotions, and thinking about a possible scandal to her career, affected her performance.

As soon as Billie Jean meets seductive hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), she is overwhelmed with desire. It might be her first time with a woman, but she takes to it easily. While it is the early 70s and its still a decade before Rock Hudson shocked the world by admitting he had AIDS, being a gay sports star limited one’s endorsement possibilities. Just like today, it would kill a sports career (though male skaters and female tennis players get a pass).

Supposedly all the gay NFL players choose million-dollar endorsements over expressing their authentic self to the public. A gay quarterback? A gay boxer? An out MMA star? A gay movie star? There is just too much money and too many people on the payroll to risk disclosure.

I did not know about Billie Jean King’s gay life. In BATTLE OF THE SEXES, it is right upfront. There is no push-pull like Cate Blanchett-Rooney Mara in CAROL. Billie Jean’s clique doesn’t seem surprised and neither does surprise drop-in, husband Larry King (Austin Stowell). A pretty bra – clearly not the kind Billie Jean wore – is all he needed as the exit sign. Did it really go down as simply as that?

Emma Stone is dazzling. She is more Billie Jean than Billie Jean. She looks like her and her characterization is a unique performance. There is not one shot of Stone where she slips into her bag of acting tricks. It is a totally fresh performance. By “bag of acting tricks” I mean the tics and word phasing that an actor or actress uses over and over again like a crutch, like the “blinking” of Richard Gere or the hair-flipping of Jennifer Aniston. Stone walks different, talks different and really seems to enjoy being Billie Jean King.

What to say about Steve Carell? Like Stone, he has confidently become another character completely. After FOXCATCHER, I thought he was well on his way and there was no going back. Then Jennifer Garner (ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY) came calling. Maybe Steve had a mortgage payment due?

Written by Simon Beauty and co-directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, I wasn’t that anxious to see BATTLE OF THE SEXES. I was mistaken, because Emma Stone gives a dazzling performance. I don’t know what is coming out in the next few months, but Stone deserves a Best Actress nomination.

Postscript. The Real Ending:  After King called off the six-year affair around 1976, Marilyn Barnett returned to her hairdressing profession and remained living at the Kings’ Malibu beach house until the married couple asked her to leave in 1979. Barnett took the fiery breakup public in 1981 when she filed a lawsuit for palimony, a payout comparable to alimony for unmarried couples. Even though Barnett lost the suit, the damage to King’s public image was done (and has since recovered), and she acknowledged the affair with her husband Larry by her side. The same year the trial concluded, Barnett attempted suicide. Barrett reportedly broke her back when she hurled herself from the roof of a building. She was left paralyzed from the waist down.

Victoria Alexander

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com. 

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