“The Battle of the Sexes” – a film review by Gary Chew
When I was eleven, I saw a sports biopic that transported my young mind for a good while. It was The Babe Ruth Story with William Bendix in the title role. I was busy in those days playing lots of softball at recess. (The principal wouldn’t let us play baseball yet.) Since Bendix didn’t look much like George Herman Ruth, Jr., the movie’s makeup department put a large, phony nose on the soon-to-be Life Of Riley TV star. The rubber, or was it plastic(?), schnoz helped.
For a time, this kind of movie would be a favorite of mine. But as years raced by at increasing speed, disenchantment took hold. My attention span began to wane with sports films. It was only a downhill ride for that genre. Not until I graduated high school did I see another sports biopic that struck me.
Fear Strikes Out starred Anthony Perkins as Jimmy Piersall, as real a baseball player as was the beloved Bambino. There was more to the Piersall biography than just sports. The struggles of an athlete plagued by mental illness played more significantly than large doses of the “roaring crowd” adulation common to sports flicks. Surely there are other sports biopics with substance, but there is — for sure — a new such film that’s replete with importance while entertaining the tennis shoes right off your tootsies.
The Battle of the Sexes is the story of those epic moments when a woman beat a man at tennis. Surely you’ve heard of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell)? It was, in my mind, a lucrative stunt since King was considerably younger than Riggs. However, symbolism was at play as well, since the Equal Rights Amendment passed the U-S Congress the year before the big match on ABC-TV … anchored by Howard Cosell and everyone else, it seemed. King’s win metaphorically amplified the congressional act onto an array of loudspeakers that echoed across the nation even though the required number of state legislatures wasn’t reached for its constitutional placement.
The reverberation of the important vote in our 1970’s history is now connected with another part of what is so much more socially significant here in 2017: homosexuality. Battle spends a good deal of time with Billie Jean coming clear with the fact that she is lesbian. (Rated: PG-13) A relationship burgeons between Billie and her hair stylist “Marilyn,” who is played so touchingly by Andrea Riseborough. She also shared credits with Stone in one of the hands-down best movies from over the past 5 or 6 years … methinks … called, Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance.
Carell shines yet again, showing how he can stretch from being DuPont in Foxcatcher to Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes. That is some distance. Perhaps I can’t give an honest response about how Stone does King. I’m totally biased to the notion Emma is way more than extraordinary. No doubt she’s a marvelous, believable actor, but there’s something else that radiates from her being that suggests great personal strength … not unlike Meryl Streep. That’s what amazes me most about Emma Stone. She gives that part of herself in spades as Billie Jean.
More briefly, we get a unique take on Sarah Silverman in the role of Gladys Heldman, the person who founded World Tennis Magazine and supported Billie Jean and 8 other female tennis players known as the Houston Nine which evolved into the Virginia Slims group. Silverman is a gal I like on screen, as well as on the stage doing her blue stand up routines. Uncharacteristically, Sarah (as Heldman) lets nary a naughty word slip from her mouth in the film while smoking Virginia Slims cigarettes .. or not.
Music on the Battle soundtrack is amazing. Heck, I was just into my thirties when the King/ Riggs thing boiled over. I was also listening to lots of George Harrison then, as well as Elton John. Ah, strains of “What Is Life?” (1970) and “Rocket Man” (1973) brought me goose bumps. Music can do that.
I sense The Battle of the Sexes has been cleverly timed for the weird times in which we live. I imagined the following watching the film: Donald Trump, strapped in a chair and rendered unable to close his eyes, just like Malcolm McDowell was in A Clockwork Orange. The president would then have to watch this fine and entertaining movie numerous times until his attitude was altered into a different, more appropriate state for the safety of the planet and those on it.
Bay Area native Jonathan Dayton and Los Angeles Basin born Valerie Faris directed. Faris also directed another movie I hold in high regard, Little Miss Sunshine. Carell was in that cast, too. Simon Beaufoy, showing great skill when he did the script for the Oscar heavyweight, Slumdog Millionaire, is also responsible for this screenplay.
The Battle of the Sexes is so relevant and entertaining, it might deserve your paying double admission to see it. I rest my case.
(Hopefully, they’ll sell you your popcorn at a reduced price.)