Battle of the Sexes (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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1973, where women's lib is a joke on the tongues of sportscasters while women like Billie Jean King struggle to make it a reality.  When the opportunity comes for Billie Jean to play tennis against Bobby Riggs, one the number one player in the world for several years, there's more than publicity at stake.  Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct Battle of the Sexes, with the screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy, and stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

Back at Illinois State University, I took an elective theater class where my professor made the uncontested claim that a man in a dress is always funny.  It went uncontested because, at the time, I didn't think too hard about the various social and cultural forces that went into the joke of a man in a dress.  Cut to about eight years later, I'm watching my rental of Battle of the Sexes, and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is doing a photo shoot of him in a pink Little Bo-Peep dress complete with sheep.  Bobby is treating his upcoming match with Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) like a joke, while she's training her heart out.

There's the problem with taking "man in a dress" at comedic face value.  We aren't so enlightened that what are deadly serious gender issues for one person can be easily dismissed for the next.  Representation alone isn't enough.  Billie Jean didn't need to just play against Bobby Riggs, she needed to win.  She didn't need to just win against Bobby Riggs, she needed to maintain a tough if affable public face while doing so.  She didn't need to just keep a great public image, she needed to ensure her private life wasn't reflected negatively in the press.  On and on the pressures mounted, affecting every corner of her life, and she never broke.

Battle of the Sexes shows great understanding of how change happens and while the symbolic is important, it doesn't mean much without the economic heft to back it up.

Battle of the Sexes is so much more than the light comedy it appears to be.  Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris understand if Billie Jean's struggles extended to more than just the match, than their film needs to stretch likewise.  They previously directed Ruby Sparks, an excellent and difficult film penned by Zoe Kazan that explored the dark side of boys creating their dream girls through fiction.  Simply presenting Billie Jean as a heroine or trapped in a loop of suffering wouldn't do her, or this story, justice.  Either dramatic approach would reinforce negative stereotypes of women as angels of limitless strength or existing to live in forever agony.

Dayton and Faris, working with Simon Beaufoy's screenplay, are astonishingly economic in the way important details about Billie Jean flow through the story.  An early break at a hair salon is an excellent example of this.  In front of the mirror, women talking to women via reflection, they share different economic troubles while the sound slowly drops out as Billie Jean and her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) flirt quietly.  I hadn't even noticed the world ceased to exist outside of their light touching until the clamor of conversation came thundering back.  It sets up early on that, no matter what else is going on, Billie Jean has her own hungers that she'll wrestle with.

It's not all stress and handcam shots capturing Billie Jean's trials and tribulations.  Cinematographer Linus Sandgren does wonders in creating an interior space in rare moments where she's left to be herself.  One gorgeous rendezvous with Marilyn takes place at a disco, where metallic strips of color fragment Billie Jean and Marilyn's bodies and the neon "Ladies" sign frames women ready to take a chance on each other.  The rack focus as Billie Jean and Marilyn feel one another out, coming to share their space, is wonderful as "Crimson and Clover" dies out in spurts on the soundtrack.  Billie Jean will be back to face the cameras soon enough but, for now, she gets a bit of pleasure that climaxes in a truth later spoken by Marilyn - "I'm good with my hands."

Had Battle of the Sexes focused only on Billie Jean it would have been great, but Dayton and Faris spare some time for the men and hit nuanced truth about their toxic masculinity.  Bobby is a well-meaning buffoon, constantly presented as a joke whose punchline is never allowed to land because he's a useful tool for the moneyed interests of Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman).  The real struggle is between Billie Jean and Jack, while Bobby gets scenes of ruining his family because of his gambling while Beaufoy's screenplay also gives time to Bobby's wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).  Her role is complex, if brief, because she sees some of the appeal in Bobby's chauvinism and charm, but is tired of him using her wealth to play tennis with dogs or model in the nude.

Billie Jean and Marilyn's scenes have an ephemeral beauty to them, only connecting directly in the dark and tasting the space between them when in public.

Basically, so long as there is money to be made in keeping the male / female dynamic weighted toward the former, there is little incentive to change.  Men like Billie Jean's husband Larry (Austin Stowell) are rare, but I'm also glad Battle of the Sexes found space for him.  He has a conversation with Marilyn where they both dance around the affair that's obviously happening while he emphasizes Marilyn can't come between Billie Jean and tennis.  Larry gets the big picture beyond the symbolism, without economic change (that Billie Jean is fighting for from the beginning) there's no social change, and his love for Billie Jean keeps him around for the big picture struggle even when he's personally suffering.

I'm flabbergasted that Dayton and Faris managed to cram this much complexity into what could have been a breezy throwaway comedy.  It's not all great, with the entertaining Alan Cumming getting one groaner of a line in the conclusion that leaves Battle of the Sexes on a note of self-importance that the rest of the film studiously avoids.  Yet, that's not enough to derail the powerful closing moments with Stone while all the pressure of winning, presenting a good public face, balancing her public and personal life, and getting women's tennis financially stable on its own come crashing down.  I'm not exercising hyperbole when I say her moment alone is as powerful as Tom Hanks' at the end of Captain Phillips.  This is a matter of life and death, with her freedom to live and love as she wishes on the line, and while she's temporarily free of the pressure she has a long way to go.

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Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy.
Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

Posted by Andrew

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