Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Battle of the Sexes: The Limitations of Decency

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone is one of the greatest pleasures to be had at the movies these days. The spark she sets off comes simultaneously from braininess and personal warmth, and in movie after movie she pulls off the trick of suggesting sophistication without a trace of affectation; she’s an old-world Hollywood star with a distinctly twenty-first-century hipness and sexiness. You may think of Jean Arthur or Margaret Sullavan with just a hint of Katharine Hepburn, but it’s emphatically the contemporary world of experience that she inhabits. As Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes taking on Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) on the tennis court in their historic match, she’s playing a story set nearly half a century ago, but it’s a modern breakthrough story, about a superlative athlete who proved, in the early days of the women’s movement, that women could be the equal of men in the sports realm and deserved the same respect (and the same monetary rewards). It’s also the tale of a young woman – King is twenty-nine, the age Stone herself will be in a few weeks – who confronts a gay sexuality concealed under the surface of a superficially happy but dispassionate marriage. Stone gives a beautifully understated performance in which her character’s struggles, disappointments, discoveries and triumphs register as glimmers of emotion in a pool of practiced calm. It’s a perfect intersection of instinct and technique.

Stone and the ideally cast Carell are both so terrific in these roles that it takes a while to register that the movie around them isn’t very good. The writer, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), have taken the high road. Except for Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who stands in for the old boys’ tennis establishment keeping King and other female players from equal consideration with their male counterparts, everyone in the movie is treated decently; the filmmakers even resist the temptation to caricature the chilly, hard-nosed Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), whose conservative Christianity engenders an intolerance for lesbians. The problem is that in movies decency is something of a neutral virtue. When Billie Jean’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell) arrives early at a tournament and figures out that she’s been sleeping with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser she meets in L.A. who ends up going on the road with the newly formed women’s tennis organization (their split from the men is a rebellion against the intractability of Kramer and his cohorts on the subject of prize money), he handles the revelation with dignity and generosity toward his wife. This delicate scene is the picture’s highlight in terms of both writing and direction, and Stone and Stowell are both superb in it. But Larry warns Marilyn in private that they are both just sideshows in Billie Jean’s life – that tennis, not personal relationships, is what she cares about. However, Beaufoy doesn’t write a single scene that validates Larry’s claim, presumably because he and the directors don’t want to venture into territory that messy – to present a side of Billie Jean that we might not be able to cheer for. (We can empathize with her when she has her first affair with another woman because she’s finding herself, and the last thing she wants to do is hurt her husband.)

The movie’s portrait of Bobby Riggs is similarly airbrushed. Sure, he’s a hustler, but not a mean-spirited one; his public chauvinism after he challenges Billie Jean to the match is just a show to promote what he hopes will be his comeback. (His current office job is boring him to tears.)  He’s an inveterate gambler whose wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) finally throws him out, but the movie treats his gambling comically: his sessions with his therapist disintegrate into games of blackjack, and when he shows up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting he proclaims that the only reason his fellow addicts are there, pissing and moaning, is that they couldn’t sustain their luck, and his showboating gets the edge over the downbeat atmosphere of the meeting. The scene in which he shows up at home and finds Priscilla has locked him out is played as situation comedy, and when they finally talk things out she doesn’t get angry at him – she tells him that she loves him but just can’t live with him anymore. Shue can’t do anything with this barely written role; all she can manage is to put in an appearance. But she has enough presence to come off better than Lewis Pullman (Bill Pullman’s son) as Bobby’s grown-up son (also named Larry), whose relationship with his father is sketched in so faintly that you can’t make sense of it. When Riggs engages a charlatan to put him on a diet of health drinks Larry is skeptical and worried about his dad’s health, but his decision not to attend the match – he watches it from his hotel room – comes out of nowhere.

Sarah Silverman as the brassy promoter for the independent women’s tennis league and Alan Cumming as their flamboyant clothes designer are entertaining enough, though I didn’t believe either of them for a second. (I rarely do.) Cumming’s character, Ted Tinling, is in the movie so that there’s a gay character around to hug Billie Jean after she starts sleeping with Marilyn and give her encouragement of the self-actualizing variety. The movie could live without this sentimentality, and it seems particularly unconvincing when he’s delivering advice to Stone, since anything phony just rolls off her back. It might have been smarter for the filmmakers to drop this character and focus on turning Marilyn into a real character instead of a device. Riseborough has an easy, unfussy presence but almost nothing to play.

The first time Bobby proposes the gender-mix match to Billie Jean, she turns him down and he ends up playing Margaret Court, and trouncing her. It’s in the wake of her defeat, which isn’t good for women tennis players, that Billie Jean changes her mind. Carell is so enjoyable to watch when he’s hustling to put the match together that it takes a scene or two to register how layered his performance becomes in the second half. That’s where we get to see his desperation as he comes face to face with the physical limits of a man in his mid-fifties taking on a woman roughly half his age at the peak of her gifts. The climactic sequence, where they play each other, is not a disappointment, though visually the rest of the movie is surprisingly cut-rate. (Linus Sandgren, who shot American Hustle and La La Land, has underlit the interiors so they look both sludgy and insipid.) Stone and Carell make the movie worth watching, but it should have been a hell of a lot better.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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