Battle of the Sexes Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (USA 2017) Emma Stone, Steve Carell.
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 28 November 2017; ticket £9.75
winner and losers
There is not much to say about Dayton and Faris’ ‘Battle of the Sexes’ as film. It is a good story but which is given the Hollywood treatment so that the film itself is a predictable formulaic product, shot using standard shot reverse shot, it’s overlong and weighed down by its own expectations of political and personal correctitude.
AS a biopic it suffers from the curse of genre that its heroine, Billie Jean King is rendered as pure as the driven snow – BJK as an image that steps right out of a shower gel advert. Without blemish, she’s a great advocate for women’s rights, for women’s tennis and has the guts to put these on the line in taking on Bobby Riggs’ challenge. All accurate as the image she projected, but un-interesting. The script of course a la Hollywood mode tries to cover all bases; all two of them: the professional and the personal. But neither of these areas kindles dramatic tension.
The script loses focus in relation to BJK in the sense that in the modern vein it wants to include everything: the tennis and the personal in equal proportion. As the personal involves her lesbian relationship which today is a personal choice approaching the norm, there is little contemporary interest to be derived from this ‘transgressive’ area of her personal life. In particular as her husband is happy enough to go along with her desire and not stand in the way ( Their marriage as scripted lacked passion on either side and may at this stage of its life been a convenience). But the personal aspect of BJK’s life is filled out cinematically with ‘falling in love’ which the directors equate shot wise with bulking out the film with dull longeurs of the lovers staring doe eyed at each other before slithering genteelly together between the sheets.
This is tedious cinema, that may justify itself as promoting LGBT rights, but if so the Battle of the Sexes ( in the best Hollywood traditions) is fighting a battle already done and dusted. There is nothing in the script that encodes or actually probes what price BJK might have paid for ‘coming out’ at this point in her career, or even the tension her career creates in prioritising work over play. There is no cost depicted by Dayton and Faris even in BJK’s personal anxiety for her lesbian affinity. So this is an inconsequential cinema, that reduces its core personal relationship to a scripting device.
Given that the outcome of the Riggs/BJK match is well known it is almost impossible to generate any tension in relation to the result of the Match that is the film’s centre piece. Because BJK in Battle of the Sexes is an image pure rather than a character there is no psychic dimension to the movie, a dimension that might have probed the more deeply into the layers of her responses and self belief. In effect all that Dayton and Faris achieve in relation to BJK’s story is a triumphalist anthem, that in today’s lexicon is free of the troublesome business of doubt and self reflection.
If BJK can be rendered as no more that a two dimensional caricature, not so Bobby Riggs. Even though the film goes to great lengths editorially to give equal time to both protagonists, Riggs is immediately interesting, in a way BJK is not. He cannot be boxed into two dimensions. Riggs was himself, a time back, a tennis champion (and like BJK not out of the college side of the tracks). But ‘tennis’ as a world had not fenced him in. His commitment to tennis was as part of the life process Dayton and Faris can’t stop Riggs being the gravitational centre towards which their film is inexorably pulled. Riggs has energy. He ducks he dives he bobs he weaves. It is clear that at the core of Riggs’ being is the drive for immanence, life on the edge; life as the hustler. To create situations where he is dancing to his own dangerous tunes, playing his own game to high risk stakes.
Steve Carell playing Riggs commands attention every time this parallel cut movie shifts to the Riggs perspective. Despite Battle of the Sexes attempts to sex up BJK’s role, the real story is Riggs. Riggs’ stunning decision to turn his bad ass attitude towards equal pay for women tennis players into a scam and caper on a truly epic scale. To become the prankster ring master of the virtual tennis circuit.
Battle of the Sexes gives some idea of the enormity of Riggs’ conceit. A documentary would have done better justice to the scale of his realised achievement as he successfully sold the whole of the media world in the USA, the match in Dallas, as the Battle of the Sexes.
Most sports stars are uninteresting because they are self confined to the bounded worlds and rules of the game from which they earn their money and in which live out their life. Unless something happens that catastrophically smashes through these bounds, the people living in these toy towns, carry through their duty of filling the sports sections of the back pages or prime time TV slots. That is their world, and they stick within it and to it.
Riggs however was out of this world. He had moved into a world of his own self creation where he made the rules. Briefly BJK was at least partially assimilated into his world on his terms. Riggs may have lost the match but in terms of the game of life, he was far ahead. But Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris seem not have been happy with this more honest depiction and opted to make a dull biopic with a Riggs Side show, even though on their own terms they couldn’t contain him on the tram lines.