I wish there was more battle in this lukewarm, superficial retelling of Billie Jean King’s match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, as women’s lib was all the rage and King fought for equal pay in the women’s tennis circuit. Alas, Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and the script by Simon Beaufoy refuse to be incisive.
Even as one cheers Billie Jean’s determination, integrity, and pluck, it is disheartening that for all she changed in the world of sports and beyond, the needle has not moved much to this day. I guess in a country of competitive alpha males, a woman president is still not viable, women still make less than men, and in this day and age, we still have males touting biology as a reason for female intellectual inferiority (and a president whose attitude to women is firmly rooted in the sleazy male chauvinism of the era).
[Aside: I always wonder who these entitled, insecure pricks think gave them life. They would do well to remember who pushed them out into the world.]
If the movie is effective, it’s because of the capable work of its cast. At first, sprightly Emma Stone seems too much of a waif to play Billie Jean, but Stone does a good job conveying not only King’s sense of fairness but her sharp determination and her competitiveness, as well as her sexual confusion. She’s good when she’s vulnerable and also when she’s tough. The great Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett, Billie Jean’s first female lover, who upends her private life. Their meeting at a hair salon where Marilyn is giving Billie Jean a trim is beautifully staged and played. Steve Carell is somehow very sympathetic as Bobby Riggs, a tennis has-been who loves gimmicks and gambling. Emasculated at home by his rich wife (so good to see Elisabeth Shue back on screen), he concocts matches against women as a way to earn money and stave off oblivion. Carell is very funny in a scene at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, but he also brings opportunistic cunning and real feeling to his character and makes him not so easy to read.
The movie captures male condescension well, from Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association who pays women eight times less to play than men, to the paternalistic commentary of Howard Cosell. It reflects the cultural mores that women endured without complaint in the inevitable compliments to their cuteness, even as they were making a point for themselves. Women are always seen by men as the garnish for the main course, as eye candy, and there are several scenes in which the young women players in the Virginia Slims tournament still react politely when patronized because no one knew any better.
For King, it was doubly difficult to be a standard bearer for women’s rights, not only because she was a public figure, but also because, according to this movie, she found out she was gay while she was married (to a very understanding husband, solidly played by Austin Stowell). The movie dutifully reminds us that at the time for a successful woman to come out as gay was simply taboo. King stood to lose endorsements and the public’s respect. The film goes out of its way to semaphore its sympathies by featuring the gay designer of the women’s tennis dresses (by the way, the costumes by Mary Zophres are fantastic) as — you will excuse the pun — a fairy godfather to King. Even though he is played by the charming Alan Cumming, I didn’t need the forced, flamboyant comic relief between him and his assistant, nor his treacly speech about gay rights at the end. Watching King in turmoil over not revealing herself to her husband, her parents, and the public is eloquent enough.
It’s frustrating when movies about trailblazers choose the most conventional, crowd-pleasing route. This tale could have been a great satire. But the filmmakers use broad strokes and corny dialogue and miss the opportunity to give the topic the acerbic bite it deserves. Battle Of The Sexes is like any other “inspiring” sports movie, with a remarkable heroine instead.