Alibi V.26 No.39 • Sept 28-Oct 4, 2017 

Film Review

Battle of the Sexes

Sporting flashback has a lot to say about gender, sexuality

Battle of the Sexes ()

Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough

Battles of the Sexes

Very often (like, now, for instance) it’s difficult to assess how much progress we’ve actually experienced as a country and a people in terms of racial, sexual and social issues. Protests, riots, killings and waves of internet-fueled hate speech are enough to give us pause and make us wonder whether things are getting better or worse. Occasionally, it’s instructive to look back at a story from another era and see how these issues were grappled with in the past. You don’t even have to go that far back. Battle of the Sexes, the new biopic about the infamous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, flashes back a generation or two to show how America dealt with issues of gender and sexual identity in the days of Watergate and bell bottoms.

The film is penned by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (the innovative music video directors who turned feature-makers with 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine). Most people know the broad facts surrounding the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. Bobby Riggs, a senior tennis pro, challenged top-ranked female tennis star Billie Jean King to a $100,000 exhibition match. The match was heavily hyped, broadcast live on national television, and Riggs got his ass smoked. But Battle of the Sexes looks into the backstory behind the colorful showdown and finds many worthy points of sociological interest and some credible emotion hidden there.

Emma Stone, as glammed down as she’ll go, stars as King. At the time in question, King was a young up-and-comer, making her way up the rankings in the United States National Lawn Tennis Association. (The name alone gives you an idea of how mired in tradition the organization was.) At the time the USNLTA was heavily segregated and paid the female players barely a tenth of what it gave the men. Angered by the imbalance and inspired by the rising women’s lib movement, King pressures the association’s commissioner (an oily Bill Pullman) for equal pay. Citing every sexist cliché he can come up with, the commissioner refuses. Backed into a corner, Billie Jean threatens to start her own rival Women’s Tennis Association. With the help of her brassy manager (Sarah Silverman) and a bunch of renegade tennis ladies, she does just that.

Billie Jean’s timely act of sticking it to The Man catches the attentions of over-the-hill tennis ace Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell, embracing his schlumpy side and rocking some salt-and-pepper sideburns). Bobbie, a hustler as well as an inveterate gambler, senses an opportunity. He’ll challenge King to a winner-take-all exhibition match, billing himself as the proud “male chauvinist pig” and King as the bra-burning feminist. For all his bluster about men vs. women, Riggs is only doing it in hopes of reviving his fading career. Billie Jean, seeing right through Bobbie’s scheme, refuses to have anything to do with it. She’s too busy trying to best her sporting rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) and keep her struggling new enterprise afloat.

Also, there’s the increasingly pressing detail that happily married Mrs. King has struck up a special friendship with iconoclastic LA hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (British actress Andrea Riseborough from Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)). Marilyn is proud about being a lesbian and blunt in expressing her attraction to Billie Jean. Worried about everything from her loyal husband to her new corporate sponsors, Billie Jean is hesitant to admit to her own homosexual leanings. Despite her fears, she and Marilyn are soon hooking up on the down-low.

At its heart Battle of the Sexes is about two people trying to figure out who and what they are—at a time when society is happy to dictate exactly who and what they are. On the one hand, we’ve got Billie Jean, grappling with issues of sexual identity in an era in which the general public doesn’t look so kindly on such subcultures. She’s not trying to be a feminist icon: She’s just wants to be treated fairly. On the other hand, we’ve got Bobby, a 55-year-old husband and has-been hustling cash at the local tennis club. His wife (a briefly seen, but very welcome Elisabeth Shue) is sick of his gambling addiction, his tendency to live in the past and his all-around refusal to grow up. By the time Billie Jean agrees to the Battle of the Sexes, Bobby has ratcheted up his sexist schtick, posing with real pigs in magazine spreads, calling for women to return to their place in the kitchen, and generally doing his best to publicize himself as the fated showdown’s comical bad guy. Though he willingly becomes a parody of himself, it’s not hard to grasp what’s really driving Bobby: feelings of emasculation sparked by a crappy office job, a rich wife and the realization that he’s a decade or so past his sporting prime.

Battle of the Sexes does a noticeably good job of capturing the look and feel of the time. The film—shot by Linus Sandgren (La La Land)—is all sun-kissed Southern California, circa 1973. The budget in arrow collars alone is impressive. It also perfectly captures the overall spirit that surrounded Billie and Bobby’s Battle of the Sexes. It’s hard to imagine a time when the entire country was glued to its television sets eagerly awaiting the outcome of a tennis match. And it’s clear that—despite the rhetoric fired off in public by folks in both camps—not everyone bought into the angry “man vs. woman” idea. While it’s easy to look back at this less-enlightened time and marvel at how far we’ve come in terms of gender equality, there’s actually something inspiring in the idea that America once took this contentious issue and came up with a flashy “show me” moment. Think men are better than women? Heck, let’s get out on the sporting field and test it. In primetime. Plus, there will be fireworks! How American can you get?

Though you couldn’t quite call it a comedy, Battle of the Sexes handles itself with a lightness and a sense of humor that seems right in line with the surreal, pomp-and-circumstance-filled tennis match itself. That doesn’t mean it’s afraid to tackle tough issues. “Bobby’s a clown, and this is his circus,” assesses King at one point. But, as she’s quick to point out, her battles with the tennis commissioner are serious issues with serious repercussions. Eventually, though, it’s Billie Jean’s budding romance with Marilyn that takes center court. The emotions are delicately handled and sweetly impactful. At the very end, the film serves its message about loving who you want a bit too forcefully. It’s a fine point, but having Alan Cumming pop out of the woodwork and deliver the moral, Aesop’s Fables-style, is one of this film’s rare double faults. Sometimes a soft lob is better than a hard smash.

Battle of the Sexes

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in this mostly breezy biopic about the infamous "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) nail the early '70s look and feel. While the film captures the feel of this epic (and epically hyped) spectacle, it's Stone's empathetic performance as the reluctant feminist icon struggling with her sexuality that delivers the most impact. 121 minutes PG-13.