‘Battle of the Sexes’ has all the parts of a great film, but suffers from an identity crisis of its own.
New sexual harassment charges seem to be revealed every day, we currently have a president who infamously was recorded saying he grabs women “by the pussy,” and the wage gap continues to be a problem. Unfortunately, the 1973 world depicted in Battle of the Sexes isn’t much different than the world today. That makes this film even more pertinent, as women continue to struggle to gain a voice in society and also because it shows this struggle has been going on for as long as we can remember. Films like this help to resolve these issues, but must walk a tightrope of being entertaining while doing it.
This film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) has all the ingredients to chase an Oscar: a well liked cast (who doesn’t like Emma Stone and Steve Carrell?), a solid, meaningful story, and a tale that’s based on true events that most people are aware of. If you’re a tennis fan like me you’re well aware of the circus American tennis star Bobby Riggs (played by Carell) fabricated that pitted man vs. woman. This film focuses more so on American star tennis champion Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and her perspective on the ruckus that Riggs dragged her into. As the story progresses it delicately weaves in King’s closeted life as a gay woman and the Battle of the Sexes match that took the country by storm. In a grander scale however, this movie is about women standing up for themselves in the face of adversity.
The film opens with Billie Jean King quitting the main tennis league for women due to the prizes being outrageously unfair. At the time the men’s champion took home eight times the prize money even though the women’s matches pulled in audiences just as large. This act was a gamble, but paid off due to the hard work of King and her fellow tennis players who ended up doing everything from selling tickets to setting up courts in addition to playing. Sarah Silverman plays Gladys Heldman, a supporter of King and the creator of a tournament series called Virginia Slims Tour that gave King and other tennis players a place to play after they quit the league. Serving as a strong female lead beside King, Silverman adds an additional element that proves women are strong on and off the court.
The lover (left) and the husband (right).
Emma Stone is quite good in this film, from playing tennis on the court (I think she did her own “stunts”) to her lovemaking scenes. As the story progresses King ends up falling for a hairdresser that works with the Virginia Slims Tour tennis players. The relationship starts in a believable way with simple conversation, but directors Dayton and Faris also weave in the awkward and somewhat sad nature of flirting at a time when being gay was not socially accepted. It’s a secret that Emma Stone conveys well and she’s quite good at revealing the pain and anguish of keeping this part of her a secret. As the movie progresses King must navigate falling for Marilyn Barnett (played with a freeing verve by Andrea Riseborough) and managing her guilt as her husband begins to understand what’s going on.
This love story doesn’t quite work for me, as most of the scenes are about them falling for each other and the infatuation that follows. There’s a love there, but it’s not a deep love just yet and much of the second half of the film moves away from it completely. What did work quite well however is the story of King’s husband, Larry King (played by Austin Stowell), dealing with the knowledge his wife is gay and their love isn’t a romantic one. The film navigates these waters with Stowell’s quick glances and acting without speaking, and it does a great job managing the guilt King must have felt. It’s a situation where King isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong because her husband is aware of the deeper truth, but it still stings because he’s so loyal and loving to her. The fact that the film ends with text explaining how their relationship changed after King came out shows this story arc was an important element.
Riggs is an entertainer — sad his antics aren’t more of a focus.
So what about the big match? Unfortunately, the match itself doesn’t actually start till two thirds of the way into the film. It serves as a good climactic end, but isn’t really a focus for much the film. To make matters worse, Steve Carell is non-existent through much of the film, with long gaps devoted to King’s story. It makes sense due to these characters not having a relationship beyond the match and the marketing stunts that lead to it, but it makes the film seem distant from its main premise. The Riggs character is a fascinating one, in part because Carell instills in him a goofiness and tragic unawareness that’s endearing, but he doesn’t play a very big part in the film. We see him gambling and being silly with his therapist which makes us like him, and even when he’s spouting chauvinistic proclamations to the media he and everyone in the room is smiling knowing it’s all a silly joke. This makes the confrontation between Riggs and King less serious, as we know Riggs doesn’t really mean the things he says, and because this is King’s story and Riggs is just the instigator of a bigger issue.
Does this film tackle the proverbial battle of the sexes well enough? Almost, but Riggs is a joke and a buffoon and the film doesn’t shine a light on the public perception leading to the match. Viewers are supposed to understand the weight of the issue due to the weight King puts on herself and some additional perspective from the chauvinistic tournament owner, played by Bill Pullman. His character is likely there to serve as the surrogate to all the hateful things men thought of women (and think of them now) and he does a bang up job, but the film doesn’t quite connect the dots well enough.
A picture of the real life Riggs grandstanding leading up to the match.
It’s also not very funny. It appears the directors chose to go all the way with drama with a little comedy thrown in, and as a result the Riggs character and his showboating ends up being the most entertaining element of the film. Because the film pivots from serious drama to Riggs’ antics however, we end up not really laughing at any of the ridiculous things he does.
The man puts on a dress and plays tennis with sheep running around him!
He somehow pulls together a $100,000 purse to the winner and gets the world riled up for the match, yet we never see how he does it!
The fact that 90 million people tuned in to watch this match and we don’t see how the media circus was created is a failing of the film. There’s no way of knowing how Riggs was able to pull this off. King’s story arc is meaningful, but the film as a whole seems to suffer from an identity crisis, not knowing where it’s going until it’s too late. The very last minutes hammer home an important point of King’s journey of being gay, but that clarity comes far too late.
Speaking of which, Alan Cumming plays a pivotal part in the final scenes, playing Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, the Virginia Slims Tour uniform designer. It’s never said outright, but it’s clear he’s playing a gay man who understands the suffering King is going through throughout the film. Acting as a sort of mentor to King, the character enters and exits as needed, delivering perspective for the audience so we can relate to King’s dilemma of hiding her sexual identity. Cumming is excellent in this role — he’s instantly likable and puts a major period on the story’s final minutes, giving King advice as she continues to weather the storm of staying in the closet. It’s tragic, and yet Cumming gives King and the audience hope that when society is ready, being gay won’t be the curse it once was. I’m not sure how I feel about this prescient point of view he gives her however, since it sort of makes him a magical character, but the meaning is a strong one.
The film has many entertaining scenes, the actors are all wonderful and the tennis is excellently shot too. If you’re going in expecting a film revolving mostly about the tennis match heard ’round the world, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. At the same time, the film is quite good at following the life of King and the anguish of having to hide being gay. By focusing on this, the film leverages King’s battle with Riggs as a means to prove women deserve equal respect. It’s a studio film to be sure, though, and it ends up never really knowing what it wants to be even when it serves up many excellent scenes with exceptional acting.