At the very top, it's a man's world.

At the very top, it’s a man’s world.

 

How is one supposed to balance being a public figure and a private soul? It’s the challenge facing any icon, any leader. How does one stand for an idea – for something greater than any one person – while sacrificing their own wants and their own needs. It seems contradictory; to declare in a loud voice that we need to be honest about something, all the while being quietly dishonest about something else. And yet it happens over and over – deep in the hearts of some of our most iconic leaders and role models.

They win bloody wars for the rest of us, while inside of them a whole other battle rages.

By 1973, there were few stars in tennis bigger than Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). She’s won fourteen Grand Slam tournaments, including nine Wimbledon victories. She had begun to push for the rights of the female half of the pro tennis circuit, noticing that they were getting an eighth of the payday that their male counterparts took in. When the situation grew especially untenable, she partnered with journalist Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to form the Women’s Tennis Association and take the athletes on a competing tour circuit from the men.

Also by 1973, former tennis great Bobby Riggs was searching for meaning in life as a retired athlete. His day job, courtesy of his father-in-law was unfulfilling. It would seem as though fulfilment for Riggs only came by way of an inside straight, with a gambling addiction that seemed destined to undo every ounce of success he’d sewn-up.

Back on the WTA, life for King was becoming mildly complicated as she meets and falls hard for a hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The two share a fast connection, and a deep infatuation. This complicates things for several reasons. For starters, it’s 1973, and the LGBTQ society isn’t truly embraced in American life…certainly not for a celebrity like King. But what’s more, King is married to a fine upstanding young man named Larry (Austin Stowell). Larry likely has his suspicions, but still – cheating is cheating…in tennis and in life.

Over at the Riggs compound, an act of desperation for notoriety leads Bobby to approach Billie Jean with an idea: The Battle of The Sexes. A best of three exhibition match, with the winner taking home a hefty payday. King, at first rebukes the idea, believing it to be nothing but a circus with a crazy barker in the centre ring.

Riggs, undeterred, offers the chance to Margaret Court (Jessica MacNamee), and promptly beats her in straight-sets.

Seeing what the loss could do for women’s tennis – if not also for women’s rights on the whole – King calls next with Bobby Riggs, setting the stage for one of the most iconic one-on-one events in sports history.

 

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After the main event ends, the film goes inside the locker room to find Billie Jean King sitting alone. She has stepped away from the celebration she has ignited, and the victory she has worked so hard for. It’s the greatest bit of acting Emma Stone puts forward in the whole film, and she barely says a word. On her face is joy, relief, pain, and bewilderment. Her whole body is a tightly wound spring that is desperately trying to uncoil. It is the culmination of months of drama – of personal and professional sacrifice. It is a physical embodiment of victory that so few of us ever get to see, and Stone nails it.

Unfortunately, BATTLE OF THE SEXES doesn’t give its other moments of high drama nearly enough space and physical embodiment. Relationships are at risk in words only. Physical and mental preparation happens through montage. Characters deliver their lines, but seldom without any real purpose besides it being the next line in the script.

It all comes across like marbles rattling around in a shoe box: lovely objects, making lots of noise, but in a manner that seems too clumsy and random.

For instance, there is a moment in the late-going where Larry and Marilyn are finally confronting the unspoken truth about Billie Jean. In the din of night, during a rare moment of solitude on this crazy tennis tour, Larry underlines that whether Billie Jean is declaring her life to a man, or sharing her life with a woman, that it’s tennis that is actually her first love. He quietly underscores that no woman or man will be put above the game that truly has Bille Jean’s heart.

As quickly as this moment arrives, it is gone. There is no time to let the observation sink in, no glimmer of how Larry came to the understanding or what it means to Marilyn to hear it – let alone give us a clue on whether she believes it. BATTLE OF THE SEXES is filled with these sorts of curiosities; profound details that are only said and not really shown.

The story of this iconic tennis match deserves the cinematic treatment. What’s more, nearly forty-five years after the fact, the story seems every bit as imperative as it did when it first unfolded. The world has made strides to change the sort of sexist thinking that we witness in BATTLE OF THE SEXES, but not nearly enough, and not in ways that stuck where it matters. We need to be reminded that we haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe, and just how close we are to backsliding

However, when a story deserves the cinematic treatment, it deserves the full treatment. It should come with weight, humanity, and execution…and there BATTLE OF THE SEXES falls short. The film tells the tale, but not in a way that its filmmakers are capable of. The drama and the heart are missing, and without them we only learn what The Battle of the Sexes was…not why or how.

Call me crazy, but I believe that the why and the how are the most important parts. Dare I suggest, those are the parts that could prevent that dangerous backslide we face.

Matineescore: ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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