It’s hard to miss the parallels between the tennis match at the center of Battle of the Sexes and our most recent presidential election. The similarities go much deeper than the one event, in fact. Sexes acts as a depressing reminder that despite the progress we’ve made in the last 40+ years with regard to gender equality and LGBTQ rights, the old cliché remains as true as ever: the more things change, the more they stay the same. This realization is made all the more bittersweet because it’s wrapped up in a crowd-pleasing confection of a movie. The directing team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, gave us the feel-good Little Miss Sunshine as their feature debut, after all.
Set in 1973, the movie chronicles the true events leading to a publicity stunt/tennis match between the self-described chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, and the best player on the women’s circuit, Billie Jean King. Riggs was a hustler and an inveterate gambler who constantly sought the spotlight long after his brilliant tennis career had ended. King was the reigning women’s tennis star who was incensed that her male counterparts were earning eight times the prize money in their tournaments. When King – with the help of Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine – decides to start her own women’s tour, Riggs sees the potential for a huge windfall if he can get her to play along.
Only King doesn’t bite at first. She sees Riggs for what he is: an opportunist who treats the whole idea as a ridiculous sideshow. She’s trying to do something meaningful, while he’s having fun hyping the battle as “male chauvinist pig vs. hairy-legged feminist.”
It’s impossible to know how this movie would have played had the election turned out differently. The production company announced the project in early 2015, just months before Trump officially announced his candidacy. That makes it hard to believe that the movie was planned as a reflection of our political Battle of the Sexes.
But, as the campaign stretched on, the thought that this movie might encapsulate our current cultural moment had to have crossed the filmmakers’ minds. It was conventional wisdom that Clinton would win. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy was bound by the actual event he was dramatizing. Did he imagine, because of the conventional wisdom, that the rousing climax of Riggs vs. King on the court would serve as a satisfying button to the grueling campaign we had all just experienced?
Instead, in the wake of the election, every slight against women that Riggs serves up stings with a relevancy it might not have otherwise had. I realize that statement comes from male privilege. There are plenty of women who would argue that the gender politics in Battle of the Sexes would feel just as relevant to them no matter who had won the election a year ago.
When Riggs says he loves women, both in the bedroom and in the kitchen, the men who smirk and nod are maddeningly poignant. I was acutely aware while watching Sexes how that sort of rhetoric has only gained strength, to the point that a man who brags about “grabbing them by the pussy” now occupies the White House.
Sexes examines other issues of equality with a subtlety that Riggs’ strident sexism doesn’t allow. Billie Jean King has been an out gay woman for over 30 years, but she was still in the closet in the early 70s. She was married to a man at the time, and the movie explores her blossoming sexual relationship with Marilyn Barnett, a hairdresser for the players on the tour.
Some research on the relationship uncovers the kind of fudging of facts that often happens with movies that are “based on a true story.” Barnett was actually King’s secretary, not her hairdresser, and the women secretly carried on the affair for a decade before being discovered, which the movie portrays as happening in a few months. Still, the moments between the two, as King begins to open up to the possibility of her true sexual orientation, are handled with delicacy and dignity. Dayton and Faris, who are married, shot the burgeoning love affair with both intimate close-ups and a roaming camera that is electrifying.
Emma Stone is brilliant as Billie Jean King. She is an actress who shows again and again her facility with hitting multiple notes in a given scene. Her awkward, unsure demeanor in the scenes with her new lover cover a longing just below the surface. Stone also gives King a righteous indignation in the scenes detailing the deplorable pay inequality she and her colleagues suffer.
Steve Carell, who worked with the directors on Little Miss Sunshine, has a lot of fun as the scheming boor Riggs. As the movie presents him, we get the impression that Riggs doesn’t really believe what he pushes in the press about women. It’s all a circus to him, and whatever tactic garners the most money and notoriety is the one he’ll use. As is painfully obvious, though, that’s just as destructive as being a true believer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t take what you say seriously, because others will.
Battle of the Sexes falls short in a few areas that detail Riggs’ relationship with his own family. He is constantly at odds with his wife, Priscilla, over his gambling. Their dynamic falls into cliché. She is the put-upon wife who has reached the end of her rope. Elisabeth Shue plays Priscilla, and she is given woefully little to do, besides acting exasperated.
There is also a strange moment late in the film between Riggs and his adult son, Larry, who has been helping his dad train for the match. As they are making their way to the stadium, Larry tells his dad that he has decided to stay at the hotel, and watch on TV. Riggs is as confused by this decision as we are. The movie gives us no indication of why Larry has made this decision. It has the distinct feel of the directors leaving scenes that would have explained this development on the cutting room floor.
There’s a dissonance between the movie making clear how little progress we’ve made in 45 years, and its uplifting, crowd-pleasing nature. If you can handle that, then Battle of the Sexes is a treat. It’s creation of a specific time and place in American history is both convincing and enjoyable. It’s just depressing to know that while fashions have changed, attitudes about women’s value in society haven’t, at least not all that much.
Why it got 4 stars:
All the comparisons I made between the movie and the Trump election make Battle of the Sexes seem more heavy and depressing than it is. It's relatively light and buoyant, yet at the same time, Dayton and Faris know how to handle the serious themes with respect and care.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I can't quite pin down my resistance to Sarah Silverman's acting style, but I didn't buy her in the role of Gladys Heldman. Maybe I just haven't seen her in the right role yet. I've heard she's quite good in I Smile Back. For me, her stand up persona always seems just below the surface of whatever character she is portraying.
- I don't know how much liberty Beaufoy took with the character of Larry, Billie Jean's husband at the time, but their dynamic both in the movie, and from what I've read about the real people, is fascinating. His ultimate reaction to Billie Jean's coming out is very touching.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I feel ashamed to admit it, but I'm just now seeing my first Noah Baumbach film (ok, technically I've seen one. He co-directed the 2015 documentary about Brian De Palma, called De Palma, in 2015 with Jake Paltrow). His new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), will debut in theaters and on Netflix next Friday, and I'll have my review up on the same day.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
Nothing terrible at this screening, but Rach let me know as we were walking out that a gentlemen in our row was enthusiastically bopping along in his seat to every disco fueled hit on the soundtrack. Let It Whip, indeed, my good man.