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Battle of the Sexes: Why No Love?

October 22, 2017

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Ninety million people watched the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and I was one of them. I was seven years old at the time, and I’m pretty sure I rooted for Riggs because I thought he was funny. Battle of the Sexes captures Riggs’ ridiculous sense of humor, as Steve Carell reunites with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directors of his 2006 sleeper Little Miss Sunshine, which earned $60 million off an $8 million budget. Alas, Battle of the Sexes isn’t doing nearly so well, having grossed less than half its reported $25 million budget in its first month of domestic release. Why? Let me lob a few theories at you.

Emma Stone is miscast as Billie Jean King. Sorry to say it, because I usually love Stone and was overjoyed when she won a Best Actress Oscar in La La Land. She’s not exactly a chameleon, though. She brings a certain Emma Stone-ness to all of her roles, whether she’s in Birdman or The Amazing Spider-Man (those movies are a lot different than their titles might suggest). She doesn’t look or sound much like King, which might be okay if Carell weren’t doing an ace impression of Riggs.

The story has been told before. In 2001, Holly Hunter and Ron Silver co-starred in a TV-movie, When Billie Beat Bobby. The title spoiled the suspense for anyone who didn’t know the match’s outcome, and more important, Hunter absolutely nailed the role of King. The only advantage Battle of the Sexes has over When Billie Beat Bobby is how the big-screen version seamlessly weaves in the actual footage of Howard Cosell’s color commentary. The TV-movie cast Fred Willard as the controversial sportscaster, but there is only one Cosell. And some might say that’s a good thing.

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The title is a turnoff. True, it was the tagline used to sell the match, but that was nearly 45 years ago, and now it sounds as dated as Battle of the Network Stars, another Cosell-fronted artifact, which ABC unsuccessfully tried to reboot this summer. No question the film raises relevant questions about sexism and equality, especially in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has cast a shadow over nearly everything coming out of Hollywood lately. But why pay to see Battle of the Sexes when you can read about the gender wars for free on the Internet every day?

It’s a tennis movie. Unlike boxing or baseball, the sport hasn’t scored cinematically. When the most successful example is a Woody Allen film (2005’s Match Point), you’re not dealing with a lucrative genre. Still, that didn’t stop Shia LeBeouf from picking up a racket in the upcoming Borg/McEnroe. My prediction for its prospects? Double fault.

Game. Set. Match.

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