Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. United Kingdom/USA, 2017. Cloud Eight Films, Decibel Films, Fox Searchlight Pictures, TSG Entertainment. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy. Cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Produced by Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, Robert Graf. Music by Nicholas Britell. Production Design by Judy Becker. Costume Design by Mary Zophres. Film Editing by Pamela Martin. Golden Globe Awards 2017. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
Appalled by the sexism that sees male tennis players getting far more publicity and higher prizes than female players, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) defies tour promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman in an unrepentant performance) and, along with promoter and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, the best in the film), starts a rival tour with eight other women. At first controversial and seeming a folly, the tour is a success when Virginia Slims comes on board as sponsor and inspires enough headlines to make Kramer eat his chauvinist words (mainly that girls don’t sell tickets cause they just ain’t got the muscle). Enter Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) , the shameless stunt artist and former tennis champion whose marriage to moneyed socialite Elisabeth Shue is failing and whose gambling habit is the result of his being so bored with all his comfort and wealth. Riggs gets it into his head to have fun with the Women’s Lib sentiments being promoted by the gals’ tour and offers to match any of them for a very high prize. King turns him down, knowing that it is a publicity stunt beneath her dignity, but prissy Margaret Court says yes, and when Riggs slaughters her in their game and proves the sporting world’s anti-female sentiments right, King feels compelled to take him on for a high-stakes game that captures the nation’s attention. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have a lot to balance in this weighty story overwhelmed with many detailed tangents, including giving background on Riggs’ life while also giving the proper narrative weight to the professional challenges that led to King facing him while, at the same time, dealing with her inability to continue her dishonest marriage with a man in the face of her meeting a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) with whom she falls in love. The directors do a terrific job of finding a lot of joy and pleasure in the camaraderie of the tennis players while also respecting the dramatic elements of the story, so why does it all feel so flimsy? Playing fast and loose with facts (particularly the timeline) in the name of dramatic structure is not a problem, that’s par for the course in a “based on a true story” experience, so it must come down to two faltering elements: the script has more than its fair share of hackneyed dialogue, and Stone is woefully miscast, for despite her established talent she is not convincing in the role and can never quite bring King’s personality to life. When King pulls Kramer aside to let him know that Riggs is offensive and has a big mouth but is just a sideshow that pales in comparison to the true horrors that Kramer has buried deep within him, both script and performers fail to reach the explosive Erin Brockovich volume that the film deserves, a summation of the overall feeling that the movie spreads its many elements too thin. All that said, the lengthy recreation of King and Riggs’ game in the film’s conclusion is impressively achieved; regardless of how much computer graphic assistance it gets, it is stunning to watch.