Review – Balls Out (“Battle of the Sexes”)

As a teenager, I saw the whole televised match of Riggs vs King and thought is was all very silly, not understanding the subtle nuances that were being played out in the background between the world’s #1 tennis pro, Billie Jean King, and that crazy hustler and gambler, Bobby Riggs. 44 years later, I finally get to see a movie about it! (Did I just date myself?)

With two different perspectives, this movie ping-pongs back and forth showing the lives of 29-year-old tennis superstar Billie Jean King (Emma Stone in an Oscar-worthy performance) and 55-year-old P.T. Barnum-like huckster and gambler, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, flawless). We open with the 70’s mentality that men are superior to women in everything, especially on the tennis courts where, according to über-chauvinist pig and super-tennis promoter, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). He cites that male tennis players get paid more than women, simply because they play better, even though women players draw the same amount of crowds.

Billie Jean and pro-manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), quit the team and form their own club, the WTA (Women’s Tennis Assoc.), even picking up cigarette giant, Virginia Slims, to sponsor them. On the road, Billie Jean meets a pretty hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and things get hot ‘n’ heavy as they strike up more than just a friendship with each other, even though King has a loving husband back home.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a damn good tennis player himself, has come up with a hair-brained scheme: a televised tennis match for $35K between him and Billie Jean, but when Billie Jean refuses the offer, Bobby goes after tennis champion Margaret “the Arm” Court (Jessica McNamee), who accepts the challenge (“The Mother’s Day Massacre”) and promptly gets thrashed on the court by Riggs. Enraged by the defeat and Riggs’ merciless anti-women’s lib spouting, she accepts his $100K TV offer.

The stage is set at the Houston Astrodome, televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports (with the actual video of iconic Howard Cosell reporting), and the entire women’s liberation movement on the line. So, no pressure! It would only set them back about 20 years if she lost, that’s all. While Billie Jean trains like a prize fighter, Bobby clowns it up for the press, like giving exhibition games dressed as Bo Peep in a tennis court filled with sheep! Ever the showman (and owing thousands) he even signs a deal with Sugar Daddy, the candy bar/lollipop, for even more promotion.

The last fifteen minutes are highlights of the match where, even though Bobby is tenacious and has the upper hand at times, Billie Jean wipes him across the court with her incredible prowess. I’ll give the filmmakers credit here, even though you already know the outcome, the final tennis match is still a nail-biter! That’s thanks to the terrific screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) and the even-handed direction of husband & wife team, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). You don’t often get bio-pic’s THIS good and well directed, and even at a little over 2 hours, it kept me interested and wanting more.

Stone as Billie Jean King is pitch-perfect, as is Carell as that raucous and rascally Riggs. My only criticism is the female-bashing overkill of the main antagonists. There’s male chauvinism, and then there’s over-the-top, cartoony male chauvinism that borders on laughable. Bill Pullman as Kramer reeks of this; I can’t see how he kept a straight face. Yes, guys back then where like that; they were idiots, we get it, there’s no need to bash  the viewer in the face repeatedly with sledgehammer with that info. Moving on. . .

Check out the ensemble, too: Alan Cumming, as the WTA’s gay fashion designer, is a treat, Natalie Morales as tennis pro Rosie Casals is a natural, and Elizabeth Shue as Bobby’s long-suffering wife, Priscilla, gives a remarkably strained performance. For some fun afterwards, check out the many YouTube videos that Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs did together later on; TV commercials, talk shows, and even guest appearances on TV shows like The Odd Couple. For decades later, they remained the closest of friends until his death in 1995.

Interesting tidbit: Had Bobby won the Battle of the Sexes, he would have gone after tennis star Chrissy Evert in a $1 million televised game.                                       

Annie Get Your Gun (1950)


*

“Anything you can do, I can do better!”. That was one of the songs in this wild ‘n’ fun musical, based on the true-life story of sharpshooter, Annie Oakley. Although the title character is played by much older Betty Hutton, and the plot has been “Hollywood-ized” from its stage (and real-life) roots, the story pretty much remains the same.

Hutton plays Annie, a backwoods, plucky, and speaks-her-mind girl that has an astonishing talent with a gun or rifle: she never misses her target! Coming into town one day, promoting Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, is ego-driven and blow-hard sharpshooter, Frank Butler (Howard Keel) who makes a crazy bet: $50 to anyone who can out shoot him! The local tavern owner gets Annie to take the bet and BOOM! She wins! Impressed with her unorthodox style of shooting and amazing skills, Buffalo Bill (Louis Calhern) and show manager Charlie Davenport (Keenan Wynn) invite Annie to join the Wild West Show. Annie agrees because she has fallen for Frank, even though she has no idea what “show business” is.

But Frank, ever the cock-sure “star” of the show, won’t allow Annie to shine in front of the crowds; that’s his territory. Instead, he just makes her his assistant, until one day Annie gets her chance to perform and wow’s the crowd, including Chief Sitting Bull  (J.Carroll Naish). Annie is now pushed into the spotlight, winning the accolades of the crowd, while Frank waits his turn. World tours abound, but even that doesn’t the traveling show from going bankrupt. Annie comes to the rescue, donating all her jewellery to save the show. Frank finally succumbs to Annie, and falls for her too, and they eventually marry. . . in song. Hey, what did you expect, it’s a musical! Duh!

Sidney Sheldon adapted the long-running stage musical for the screen with three directors: George Sidney, Charles Walters, and the great Busby Berkeley. But Hutton was not the first Annie (although she kicks butt here); it was Judy Garland, who had already filmed quite a bit of her role… until she was fired for a number a reasons. Hutton came in and was dissed by the cast instantly, saying she upstaged everyone by her overacting. Whether it’s true or not (you be the judge), the movie is fun and full of great music to listen to. Keel is great as always (although he couldn’t stand Hutton) and the cinematography is wonderful.   

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