Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)
On September 20, 1973, when I was 10 years old and a few weeks into fifth grade, the media circus/tennis match known as “The Battle of the Sexes,” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, roared into the Houston Astrodome. I have two strong memories about it.
Mostly I remember my mom watching it on the small black-and-white TV we kept in our south Minneapolis basement. I remember being surprised by her intensity. She was usually calm and sweet, but this was something she needed. It made me want to root for Billie Jean. I probably was anyway—Minnesotans are preternaturally inclined to root against the braggart—but this underscored that. I remember her pride when Billie Jean won. It felt like Mom’s victory, too.
A few months later—Nov. 16, according to IMDb—Billie Jean and Bobby appeared on an episode of “The Odd Couple,” which my brother and I watched every Friday night. The commercials promoting the episode gave them equal time but it was mostly Bobby’s show—she simply gets a cameo at the end. Maybe with reason. She was a bit wooden and he was a natural actor. Or ham. He played himself, of course, an old friend of Oscar’s who winds up scamming him out of everything he owns. Felix tries to win it all back, there’s a ping-pong match in which Bobby spots the two of them a 19-0 lead, then psychs them out to take it all. “I feel hot tonight!” Bobby says as he checks to see who has the table reserved next, then tries to leave ... but not before the reservee, Billie Jean, shows up. “Who’d you hustle today, Bobby?” she asks, and he points to Oscar and Felix, chagrined, and wearing their own psych-out garb: the two-headed man; the huge blow-up sandwich-board photo of Billie Jean. After the two tennis stars begin to play, and get a rally going, Felix suddenly tells Oscar, with excitement, “I think we can take them.”
And ... scene.
I was oddly bummed that that “Odd Couple” episode was missing from the movie, “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. Couldn’t they have run it during the end credits or something? For fun?
But I was more bummed that my mom was missing.
Of sharks and dolphins
“Battle of the Sexes” was written by a Brit, Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours,” “Everest”), and directed by the wife-husband team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and it’s a nice movie but oddly insular. It’s too nice. It’s mostly about the lives of the two tennis stars in the year leading up to the match. And mostly about her. And a lot of that is just ... off.
She’s the top women’s player in the world but disrespected by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), recent founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals, so, with her agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman), she creates the Women’s Tennis Association and goes off on a seemingly perpetual low-budget Virginia Slims tour on the California coast. There, for the first time, she gets involved in a same-sex relationship—with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough)—and deals with its psychic, marital and professional repercussions.
More on that in a second.
He’s a former No. 1 tennis player, now 55, with a rich wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), and a dull office job via his father-in-law. He escapes it, and the wife, by meeting the boys, drinking and betting. His betting here is seen as gambling rather than (as in the day) hustling. It’s good-natured—as he is. He goes to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and gives a carpe diem-ish “life is a gamble” speech. He just wants to have fun. The unstated joke is that the No. 1 male chauvinist pig is basically a henpecked husband.
He isn’t even the villain in the movie! The villain is Kramer, and, more generally, social mores. As a result, you don’t get a sense of all of the women in the world like my mom desperately rooting on Billie Jean. That’s just wrong. Dude played into reactionary, misogynistic forces for money and fame. Riggs was a shark but the movie makes him into a dolphin.
It does something similar to Marilyn Barnett. You certainly get an odd vibe from her. She shows up during the tour like, “Here I am,” and, worse, shows up a half hour before the Riggs match for a haircut and a chat. Really? When Billie Jean is repping her gender in the grudge match of the decade, you take the risk of throwing off her concentration? But their relationship in the movie is still steeped in romanticism. It's positive. Which I get. You can’t make this first lesbian relationship for Ms. King seem “bad.”
But it was. Barnett scared Billie Jean with her controlling ways, then attempted to extort her eight years later. She outed her in the press, and they faced off against each other in court. Billie Jean won that match, too, but you don’t get a glimmer of it here. It’s not even mentioned in a title card. It’s all soft focus. Or no focus.
Jumping the net
Interestingly, Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), may be the most sympathetic person in the mix. Even as he’s getting pushed out of the picture, he always seems to have Billie Jean’s best interests—certainly her best professional interests—at heart. And the moment in the hotel room when he realizes he’s being cuckolded, and maybe all of the suspicions he’s had tumble into place, is heartbreaking.
But this, too, is screwed-up history. Watching, you'd think they divorced that year or the next, but they remained married until 1988. They're still good friends.
After Bobby loses in straight sets, he jumps over the net to congratulate Billie Jean—which is at least something that truly happened. I remember because I remember being incensed. Even as a 10-year-old I knew: “You don’t jump over the net if you lose; that only happens if you win.” It felt like Riggs was taking away some aspect of Billie Jean’s victory. And by portraying Riggs and Barnett in such soft focus, it kind of feels like the movie does the same.