I’m a sucker for period pieces they serve as one of the best ways for a history buff like myself to sink into the feeling and setting of pivotal moments in history. They also serve as great high water marks to see how far we’ve come since then. Like I can’t imagine a time where female athletes are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Oh. Well, at least the set designs are nice.
Current day comparisons aside, there is always a risk when you base an entire movie around a singular event. There is a delicate balance of all the elements needed. You need to set sociopolitical climate, establish characters, all while maintaining a good pace towards the actual event. For the most part Battle of the Sexes does a good job of this if not for double faulting in the pacing department.
Battle of the Sexes
Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Release Date: September 29, 2017
Set during the turbulent times of the early 1970’s in America where the entire country seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The Vietnam conflict has been going on for 15 years, the wheels of the sexual revolution of the 60’s are fully in motion, and there is a desperate cry for women’s liberation.
It is also arguably one of the high points of tennis popularity among the American public thanks to the fact that the major tournaments are now open to professionals as well as amateurs. Although amateurs and professionals are allowed to play together, there is still a significant gap between the women and the men’s championship purse.
The movie opens with Billie Jean King, played by the brilliant as ever Emma Stone receiving significantly less money for winning the US Open. We do get a bit of world establishment here with the fact that King and her friend, World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are reprimanded by tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) for being in a gentlemen only room before being told that women aren’t as exciting to watch due to pure biology, and hence the pay gap.
What follows is King’s and Heldman’s crusade to bring equality in both pay and recognition for women’s tennis by setting out on their own women’s only tournament. Is it a biopic? A period drama? A sports movie? I can’t really tell because the movie never fully commits to a genre.
The greatest argument is that it is a period drama mixed with a biopic because there is so much emphasis put on King and her struggles through this period. The entire film revolves around her, and for good measure as Billie Jean King is a living national treasure. It’s not to say that the screentime devoted to King isn’t enjoyable by itself, Stone completely melts into the lead in what I can almost guarantee will be another academy award nomination. The problem is that I think too much of the movie is dedicated to King and her affair with her hairdresser. While it does help us get more into character with King but it’s never really used to further the story except in a groan-worthy (fictional) moment near the actual match.
Throughout the first half of the movie, we are given a few glimpses of Bobby Riggs path towards the titular match. I am happy to say that the movie didn’t take the easy way out by making Riggs out to be the villain and instead more of a comic heel, a role which Steve Carell is oddly fit for. Sure some of the things he says are horrendous and make the skin crawl but you can tell that to Riggs it was all a show, which historically speaking was accurate. The amount of screentime used for Riggs is questionable though. If this were a biopic or period drama the movie spent too much time on Riggs, if it were a sports movie it spent too little time.
Because of this, the pacing of the movie feels a little sluggish through the first half of the movie while we are establishing the events that led to actual Battle of the Sexes. There isn’t really a good reason given for the audience to dislike Kramer, the films true antagonist other than the fact that he is a sexist businessman in the 1970’s, which the film establishes are a dime a dozen. It also leaves the knowledge of Title IX and Women’s Liberation movement up to the viewers to figure out which if I weren’t a history buff I wouldn’t have known about and I doubt many people who didn’t live through the era would either.
It could be argued that since the fight for equal sports pay is still ongoing that they don’t really need to explain much beyond the basics, but I’ve never seen comparisons to modern day issues as a good excuse for incomplete writing. Movies should be self-contained so that 30 years down the line when true equality is (hopefully) achieved and established this movie can be seen as a relic of the times and not a mirror in which we see our current era.
When King finally accepts the offer of Riggs to play an exhibition match the movie feels like it shifts into a new gear. It turns into a full-fledged sports movie where all of the focus is on the match and the two competitors. The outside world peeks in every now and then to prod the plot forward but the movie now takes its pace in stride and pushes us into the inevitable match. It ultimately turns entertaining with the match being presented both accurately while also using all the right beats to make you think that maybe King will lose.
One thing that is absolutely spot-on with the movie is the set and costume design which effectively throws us right into the 70’s. The movie is filled with muted bright colors from the wallpaper all the way down to the uniforms that the athletes wear. It’s beautiful to see and definitely nothing I can find fault with in any way.
So ultimately what does it all come down to? It is a decent movie, it just feels like it waded around too long in no (wo)man’s land in regard to picking a genre to truly stand out among the greats of the year. Well composed but I feel like it’s not the movie that someone as influential as King deserves. Yes, it brings her struggle to a new generation but it feels like it could have been so much better as a straight-ahead biopic instead of focusing on this one moment in Kings lifelong career.