Beyond the Hype

Movie Review – Battle of the Sexes

Directed by Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris

Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough and Elisabeth Shue

We humans like to divide our lives into neat little boxes, easily digestible packages that make it easier to find meaning and see things in perspective. This is usually arbitrary. The flow of years gets chopped into decades. The decades we divide into individual events that seem significant to us – tidy little metaphors for the social, political and cultural zeitgeist that define who we were and what we became. Perhaps no decade is better suited to this than the 1970’s.

Hot on the heels of the social and political upheaval of the previous decade, the 70’s saw the broken promises and unquestioned corruption of long sacred institutions, challenged by a younger generation of starry-eyed idealists whose own hollowness and hypocrisy would be exposed a generation later. The decade’s big news stories – Vietnam, Watergate, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, etc., serve as symbols for an outdated, mostly male, status quo brought down by Baby Boomers.

But the decade wasn’t just about political and social change, it was also about hype and unadulterated cultural cheese. The decade that brought us Gil Scott Heron, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and All in the Family, also brought us “Billy Don’t be a Hero”, Love Story and Charlies Angels. If the 60’s had Woodstock, the 70’s had Snake River Canyon; a thoroughly contrived and meaningless event, given false weight by endless TV promotion. Riggs v King, the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was a little bit of both. Billed as the Battle of the Sexes, the event was seen by many as a grand statement on the equality of the sexes during the heralded Second Wave of feminism. But what I remember most about it was the hype.

I was 12-years-old on September 20, 1973, the date of the match. I wasn’t a tennis fan, but even I knew The Battle of the Sexes, was not the ultimate athletic competition between two athletes of opposite gender, as it was being promoted. As everyone knew from the endless media coverage, Riggs was 30 years King’s senior and was well past his prime. King was widely considered the best female player in the world and one of the greatest female athletes ever. It was an uneven match, but it didn’t matter. The competition gave voice to the women’s liberation movement, or “women’s lib” as it was called, dominating media coverage and public discourse for weeks. By the night of the contest it was a circus. Riggs was the “male chauvinist,” brazenly proclaiming men the superior sex. Prancing around the court with suitcases in one hand, wearing, appropriately, a logo for the candy bar Sugar Daddy, and generally mocking his opponent and women in general, he was arrogant, obnoxious, and silly, a comical display of exaggerated over-confidence. King, as most people know, won the contest, but I remember it as theater.

Battle of the Sexes, the new film by Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Feris, accurately portrays the media frenzy that surrounded the match. As a sports movie, it sinks under the weight of its clichés, and its ideological moralizing. But when it examines the personal lives of its two charismatic lead characters, it transcends its hokey sports-movie clichés.

Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a champion tennis player, a three-time Grand Slam singles winner and former World Number One for three consecutive years during the 1940’s. By 1973, he was 55 and had all but destroyed his marriage due to incessant gambling. Riggs was a sly hustler, always on the make for a big score. In 1973, he had his biggest idea ever: A tennis match between himself and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), with the winner walking away with $100,000. King, despite her admiration for Riggs, refused. Instead Riggs challenged Margaret Court to the match. Court, who had defeated King before the match with Riggs, lost soundly. After Court’s loss, King reconsidered, and the rest is history.

Riggs played the villain in the match but he’s not the villain in the film. He was a parody of macho arrogance, male chauvinism’s poster child, and he played the part with aplomb. But you always got the feeling he was in on the joke. Even King, in their pre-match press conferences seemed to take delight in his presence. It was all fun and games and Riggs was as much the showman as he was a great athlete. Carell, as Riggs, having honed his skills at portraying blowhards during his seven-year stint as buffoonish boss Michael Scott on TV’s The Office, drolly captures the former champ’s rascally geniality. His best scenes, with Elizabeth Shue, in a radiant, Oscar worthy performance as his patient wife, are tinged with a mutual respect that is charming and bittersweet.

But the focus is on King and on her adulterous relationship with Marylin Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), who eight years later would out King to the world when she filed a palimony suit against the tennis legend. Stone, last year’s Best Actress Oscar winner for La La Land, not only looks like the young tennis star, she captures both the steely resolve of King, the tennis player and the shy vulnerability of King, the young woman. Her scenes with Riseborough, awkward and lovely, provide the film’s emotional core.

When at last we get to the big match, Dayton and Faris spare no tropes. A fictitious conflict between King and Barnett that threatens King’s game, resolves just in time for the big show. Shots of the match alternate with the concerned faces of the supporting cast – the hopeful anticipation of King’s supporters, the bewildered faces of the arrogant all male tennis establishment as the prospect of a King victory becomes inevitable. They scowl and clinch their fists, like cartoon villains. You almost expect one of them to yell “Drat, that woman!”

Battle of the Sexes aspires to make a meaningful statement about the struggle of women to receive equal treatment. It effectively illustrates the pay discrepancy between male and female athletes and how King and her peers risked their careers in protest. But its self-congratulatory attitude is annoying. A speech at the end of the film by King’s gay male dresser, (Alan Cumming) about changing the world, is forced and preachy. Still as a record of a bizarre historical event that captivated a nation and the media circus that surrounded it, and as a drama about two strong personalities balancing their personal and professional lives, Battle of the Sexes satisfies.

Rating: 73/100