Film & Television

Battle of the Sexes: We’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe

This is an ideal set-up for a sports movie, and it’s rather surprising that it’s taken 44 years for someone to make it. That someone is the married directorial team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (best known for their quirky but oddly satisfying Little Miss Sunshine, 2006), working with a script by Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 2009). In Battle of the Sexes, the creative team focuses at least as much on the human stories of King and Riggs as they do on the sports — although the last fifteen minutes of the film are gripping, whether you remember the real-life match or not.

Emma Stone turns in another terrific performance as Billie Jean King. (She won the Academy Award for last year’s La La Land.) The young actress has talked about her own battles with anxiety, and the pressure King feels is palpable — not only to be her own best, but to represent, defend and champion other women athletes. Despite the hoopla surrounding it, King keenly understands how high the stakes are when she faces Riggs in the eponymous “Battle of the Sexes.” The strides she’s made can easily be unmade by her professional performance or by her personal secrets.

A significant and often touching plotline in Battle of the Sexes is King’s awakening lesbianism. Attracted to Marilyn, a free-spirited hairdresser on the women’s circuit, played with appropriate bohemian flair by Andrea Riseborough, King has to come to terms with her marriage to manager and trainer Larry King (a sympathetic Austin Stowell). But, the movie is not a gay coming-of-age story. King’s professional focus is paramount. Or, as Larry explains to Marilyn, “We’re both sideshows. Tennis is her first love.”

King and Stone’s determined and wholly successful portrayal of her are the main event here. But, Steve Carell is equally entertaining as Bobby Riggs. The role gives the actor wonderful opportunities to be the clown, whether he’s playing tennis in swim fins or a shepherdess dress, spouting chauvinist remarks for the press, or upbraiding the other members of his Gamblers Anonymous group. “The problem isn’t that you’re gamblers,” he insists. “It’s that you’re terrible gamblers.”

The excellent supporting cast includes Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman (she’s particularly funny trying to get her players to smoke Virginia Slims for what we would now call “the optics”), Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’s society wife, and Jessica McNamee as player Margaret Court. Alan Cummings is promising as the women’s team’s extremely gay stylist, but the fine actor is ill-served by the script’s clumsiest lines, “Someday we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.” Bill Pullman is truly loathsome as the loathsome Jack Kramer. (Did I mention that he’s loathsome?) But, as despicable as he is, Kramer is absolutely essential to the story.

One thing that Battle of the Sexes points out, interestingly enough, is that had it not been for a handful of diehard chauvinists (chiefly Kramer and Riggs), one of the most iconic moments of the women’s rights movement might never have happened. The movie doesn’t devote time to some of the controversies that surfaced after the famous tennis match. There was a persistent rumor that Bobby Riggs was paid to throw the match to cover gambling debts (which doesn’t make sense mathematically, given the prize money). And, the love story between the real King and Barnett ended in a high-profile palimony suit in 1981 that outed King and caused her to lose important endorsements and sponsorships.

Instead, Faris and Dayton tell a cleaner more focused story. Battle of the Sexes is satisfying as a sports movie and even more rewarding as a fable about people doing the right thing to make the world a more equitable and better place.

It’s frustrating that 44 years later things aren’t even better than they are. Women still struggle to earn the opportunities, respect and compensation that men are afforded – not just in sports but in virtually every professional sector. (Politics certainly isn’t immune. I doubt that I was the only women in the theatre who, watching a male chauvinist bully attack a dedicated, no-nonsense woman, saw disturbing parallels to this country’s most recent election.)

Which brings us to the present day. Professional tennis is one of the leaders when it comes to “equal pay for equal play.” The prize money is now the same for men and women at the U.S. Open, thanks in great part to decades of King’s efforts. But, elite athletes like Serena Williams are still criticized for being too aggressive and masculine. There are also many willing to diminish their accomplishments. John McEnroe, a former champion and perpetually surly interview subject, refuses to acknowledge Williams as “the world’s best tennis player,” without inserting the word “female.” On NPR, he explained, “If she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.”

We’ve come a long way, maybe? Maybe not.

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  • LeFroo March 13, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    It hasn’t really taken 44 years to make a movie about the King/Riggs match, just about 30. The Jane Anderson written & directed “When Billie Beat Bobby”, starring Holly Hunter & Ron Silver, aired back in 2001. It was a made for TV movie, and there was no showcase or even mere mention of King’s sexuality, therefore no hot button topic coat-tail to ride, maybe that’s why no one remembers it, but it was a damn good movie nonetheless.