Battle of the Sexes (Preview)
Reviewed by J. E. Smyth

Produced by Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, and Robert Graf; directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; cinematography by Linus Sandgren; edited by Pamela Martin; production design by Judy Becker; starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Stowell, Sarah Silverman, and Alan Cumming. Color, 121 min. A Fox Searchlight release.

September 20, 1973 might seem an unlikely candidate for one of the great dates in television history. Thirty thousand people were in the Houston Astrodome that day, and more than fifty million people were glued to their TV sets worldwide—to watch a tennis match. Bobby Riggs, a former number one tennis champion who turned pro back in December 1941, dubbed the event “Custer’s Last Stand.” Riggs had a flair for casting; he was perfect as the modern-day Custer, a born hustler and motormouth chauvinist who claimed, “Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order,” and that the best woman player could never compete on the same court with a man. Billie Jean King, the bespectacled, no-nonsense girl from Long Beach, was nobody’s idea of Sitting Bull, but her one-handed backhand was more effective than any tomahawk. The barbarian hordes, with their big hair, bellbottoms, and Max Factor warpaint, were there to cheer her on as she beat Riggs in straight sets. For the uninitiated, that means a massacre.

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.

The famed “Battle of the Sexes” is required viewing for any feminist, any family with kids who play sports, and any beer-drinking dinosaur who still watches women’s tennis to look up the players’ short skirts—but I mean the original televised match. There are several versions; Riggs’s and King’s gender showdown was made for re-exploitation. In 2001, Jane Anderson wrote and directed a very creditable television movie starring Holly Hunter (When Billie Beat Bobby), and The Battle of the Sexes (2013), the fortieth anniversary documentary directed by Zara Hayes and James Erskine, is not just for tennis fiends who annually skip work to watch Wimbledon—it handles the big issues about feminism, equal rights, and the media’s paternalistic chauvinism with intelligence and accuracy.

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, 2006) have directed the latest version, one that Hollywood publicists and industry critics—not particularly known for originality—have labeled “a crowd-pleaser.” Well, if a film with a sports heroine can top the U.S. box office, it’s about time. Over the years, we’ve had Lou Gehrig (Pride of the Yankees, 1942), Jim Thorpe (Jim Thorpe—All-American, 1951), and Jackie Robinson (42, 2013)—the British have had Eric Liddel and Harold Abrahams (Chariots of Fire, 1981) and Bob Champion riding Aldaniti (Champions, 1984). We’ve had working-class white, Native American, African American, and Jewish men for big-screen sports idols. We’ve had cancer survivors and future missionary war heroes who won’t compete on Sunday. For years, women had to be content with Katharine Hepburn’s fictional Pat in Pat and Mike (1952)—but at least Hepburn needed no stunt double for tennis, golf, or boxing. Finally, we have B.J.K. on the big screen. We’ve got a real woman who wins, and she’s no big-breasted bimbo in boots who melts at the sight of Chris Pine and babies (Wonder Woman, 2017).

Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King.

But Battle of the Sexes is not a heroic biopic of the number one feminist of tennis and founder of the WTA (the Women’s Tennis Association, 1973). We’ve moved on, perhaps too quickly, to historical heroines “with issues.” They can’t just succeed, watch the competition squirm, and enjoy it. In the last moments of the film, after King (Emma Stone) has defeated Riggs (Steve Carell) and retired for a moment to laugh and cry in the locker room, the camera follows her to the edge of the Astrodome, while she watches the crowd from the shadows. For a moment, we see her silhouette etched against the colorful rush of celebrating fans—a conventional shot of a hero, perhaps, yet an all-too-rare shot for screen heroines. But the standalone feminist setup doesn’t last long—King is joined by another shadow, that of her gay costume designer (Alan Cumming), who commiserates with her about another struggle.

Billie Jean King’s “problem” was not about being the best—she handled the pressure of international sports with a grace rivaled only by Arthur Ashe. In Battle of the Sexes, writer Simon Beaufoy has given us a behind-the-scenes view of King’s closeted lesbianism, covering her somewhat cloying “Crimson and Clover” love affair with her hairstylist Marilyn Barnett. And yes: that’s the woman who would later sue King in a palimony suit in the early 1980s that would finally “out” her as the first major gay sports star. Beaufoy doesn’t touch this part of the story. Using the standards of style for rendering personal torment (oh-so-close close-ups and a handheld camera that jiggles so much you want to slap it still), the filmmakers go to great lengths to show King at a time when everything happened at once to a person already stretched to the breaking point. Although, with a supportive husband who looks like a cross between Ryan O’Neal and Robert Redford (Austin Stowell), you can’t feel too sorry for her!

Emma Stone, although she should have had a stunt double for the footage showing her attempting to serve, shows the different textures of emotion behind King’s private game face. She’s likable as a small-town, working-class girl who wants to please her parents and shrinks under the judgmental gaze of rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).

Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billie Jean King.

What is missing from Stone’s performance (and indeed the film) is a sense of what made Billie Jean King a public heroine. Tennis is legendary for killing box office, but the film goes out of its way to put King’s body out of focus (and I don’t mean the discreet love scenes between Stone and Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn). The opening shots of Stone playing tennis over the credits are a blur. We don’t get to look at King’s speed, the whiplash backhand, the piercing stare, and the muscular legs that were defining the image of the female sports superstar. Stone, lithe and glamorous even in her brown wig and glasses, has no muscles; she looks like a gamboling bunny on the court. The actress is more effective off court—going head-to-head with the sexist boss of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (Bill Pullman) or glaring at the airport TV screen as Margaret Court loses in the first tennis “battle” with Bobby Riggs (“the Mother’s Day Massacre”). Thankfully, Beaufoy made use of King’s 1970–71 fight for equal pay in men’s and women’s tennis—these early scenes of female rebellion and solidarity are some of the more inspirational in the film. 

But Beaufoy’s script is playing King a certain way. She is set up against tennis rival Margaret Court. Court still holds the record for the most major titles in tennis history—male or female. She was one of the few women players to win matches in between pregnancies. What’s not to like about a working mom from Australia, right? But Court is not a politically correct tennis heroine. It isn’t that she lost in the first battle of the sexes against Riggs—anyone can have an off day. Court, then a Roman Catholic, is not a supporter of LBGTQ+ rights—she’s an old-fashioned, mouthy Christian (she’s a minister in Perth these days), and back in the Seventies she did not share King’s commitment to equal pay for equal work. It’s perversely funny to hear television coverage of current women’s matches—they don’t want to mention Court’s records, but it’s impossible not to, she’s so good. In this film, Court is demonized. Actress Jessica McNamee narrows her eyes at Stone’s King when she figures out her liaison with Marilyn. She doesn’t join her giggling Virginia Slims circuit rebel colleagues and their debonair, gay costume designers in the car for a boozy night out—she’s got a baby on her hip and responsibilities…

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Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1