January 9, 2018

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Emma Stone, Steve Carell

In the realm of sports movies, tennis has been woefully neglected. Aside from Match Point and Wimbledon, there haven't really been any major movies on the subject. (I'm ignoring the random ones you've never heard of that pop up when you Google "tennis movies") And the tennis in those is, to put it mildly, hideous. So to see a "real" movie about the sport, about a legend like Billie Jean King, getting Awards buzz?


It's a worthy subject, the Billie Jean King match versus Bobby Riggs in 1973. It was a huge moment for the women's movement and something most female athletes are acutely aware of. King herself is also a worthy subject, having been a trailblazer for female professional athletes, women, and the LGBT community. Some people were surprised when the USTA Center in Flushing Meadows (aka where the US Open is held) declined selling the naming rights to the complex and instead named it after Billie Jean King. I'm surprised more things aren't named after her, frankly. Her contributions to tennis and sports in general are not even remotely recognized enough.

That being said, this movie is sort of meh. I wanted to like it far more than I actually did. Far and away the best part is Stone herself, and any reader of this blog knows how I feel about her, so that took a lot for me to say. She does a really good job and somehow even manages to look like Billie Jean. Steve Carell also does a commendable job as Riggs, so it's really not the actor's fault this movie falls flat. They even took pains to hire proper stunt doubles so the tennis sequences aren't embarrassing to watch. Instead, it was the decision to split the movie into half a biography of King and half a movie about the match itself.

Like I said previously, King is a very worthy subject of a biography. The fact that she is an LGBT icon and the issues she had to deal with at that time, trying to discover her sexuality without being able to be open about it, is obviously terrible and a solid storyline. The problem is that this movie is fundamentally set up as a sports movie. It's titled after a particular match and it's pinnacle point is the match itself. So to integrate King's personal journey with her marriage and sexuality, to me, was too much to cover.

As I see it, the movie should have gone one of two routes. Either:

1. It's a biopic of King herself. Her rise to the top of tennis, the creation of the tour and its struggles, the discovery of her sexuality, and the aftermath of that famous match. I want more detail about the struggle to start the tour. The struggle of living on the road and the toll it took on her marriage. The opinions of other women on tour on how it was going or what they thought of King (other than Margaret Court's numerous side eye glances). Even naming the other women who left the LPTA to start the tour would have been a start. Or,

2. A match more strictly about the event itself. When I think about an excellent sports movie about a true event, I think of Miracle. What that movie did so well was show all the events leading up to, including the general environment, before the event itself. While some might argue that's what this movie did, I found it lacking. Yes, the movie showed the creation of the tour to give us the backstory that it had to do with female athletes demanding respect, but it didn't show the general atmosphere of the US at that time. How did people feel about the sport? About what King was doing? How aware was the general public? What did it mean for women at home to watch her win? What happened to Jack Kramer? What changed as a result of this? The movie tried to build up to this climax of the match, but ended abruptly after it was over as if it was washing its hands and going home. Bobby's backstory also felt rushed. It would have been nice to have clips of his days on tour, so viewers got a fuller picture of the type of player he was. Why was this senior tour player, at 55, able to command an audience with these top women? And what was up with those vitamins? This movie felt more like it was checking the boxes on showing particular events of pieces of the story instead of diving into them to tell a richer story.

I think the movie tried to split the difference and give recognition to King while trying to make the movie more "mainstream" by marketing it as a traditional sports movie and it suffered as a result. So if any other director ever decides to make a proper movie about Billie Jean King, I look forward to watching it. In the meantime, however, I pray Emma Stone doesn't win a second Oscar for yet another mediocre movie.

Final word: Though I love the attention being paid to tennis and Billie Jean King, the movie itself doesn't hold up to the buzz.

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