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Saturday, September 30, 2017

GAME, SET, MATCH

GAME, SET, MATCH

The Battle of the Sexes is a well written, well-acted, well directed film with few surprises and, consequently, less impact than it should. The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is well documented—not only as a touchstone moment in sports history, but in the evolution of Western society. Specifically, it became the face of the burgeoning sexual revolution, and a rebel yell in the fight for women’s equality. It was also a defining moment in the lives of two disparate, flawed, very human individuals played out in the glare of the media spotlight.

While Emma Stone and Steve Carell inhabit their characters, the film plays so safe with the events, it is impossible to get lost in the portrayals. We never forget we are watching two actors doing a fantastic impression of two historic figures moving relentlessly toward an intersecting destiny. The problem can be traced to directors Valerie Faris’ and Jonathan Dayton’s choice to limit the film by turning two-thirds of the narrative into a personal story in which King anguishes over her bisexuality.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s this might have been a revolutionary story deserving of being made the focus. However, as awareness of the LGTB community has made strides in the intervening years, the more interesting story relevant to today becomes Billy Jean King’s singular focus and dedication to her sport. Her sexual orientation is part of her story, but to make it the only part is to belittle Billy Jean King’s major accomplishment—the exposure and beginning deconstruction of a male dominated society.

In real life, the actual tennis match between King and Riggs transcended the individuals involved. So too, The Battle of the Sexes, is finally allowed to roar with the first serve of the fantastically recreated tennis match. Despite knowing the historic outcome, everything that had gone before—King’s lifestyle choices, Riggs’ gambling addiction (which gets short shrift, being played more for laughs than pain)—fades away as the pock, pock, pock sound unique to tennis rivets and grabs your whole attention. Finally, the film eclipses its faults and double-faults and begins to soar.

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