Film Review – Battle of the Sexes

Until a few days ago I knew very little about a pivotal moment in sports and equality that took place when I was not quite one week old.

By sheer coincidence I stumbled upon the excellent Soundtracks program on SBS the night before seeing the film Battle of the Sexes, and the episode kicked off with a piece on the real life event and explained it thus – “The famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was a galvanising moment for the women’s movement. Billie Jean’s win was an affirmation to all the women who felt underestimated as simply mothers and housewives.”
The match now feels like a footnote in history despite being one of the most watched live TV events in US history, taking place at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973. It drew the largest ever live audience for a tennis match and got prime time TV coverage. 30,472 spectators filled the stadium and an estimated 50 million viewers watched on television.
The entire affair was a promotional spectacle for an ageing and ailing ex-champion, in Riggs, who, having won Wimbledon as a 21 year old amateur in 1939, before going on to be world number one several times in the 1940s, was still playing in 1973, but in the bottom rungs of the sport.
King’s key issue (and rightly so), was that male players were being offered at least 8 times the prize money of women tennis players, despite the fact that they both drew the same volume of crowds. At the time, with the governing body of the sport, the Lawn Tennis Association, refusing to offer improved pay scale for the women players, King took the enormously risky step of leading a breakaway group who went on to form their own competition.
In 2017, while inequality in pay rates (amongst other things) is still a significant issue, it seems insane that the powers at the top of the tennis world would resist this call for fairer conditions from one of the sports leading lights.
The notion of this match to prove “once and for all” that women were equal to men on the tennis court and therefore in other areas such as the boardroom is frankly ridiculous.
King was at the top of her game, and almost half of Riggs age. His best playing years were clearly behind him and, in the film, he seems to be in need of the match for attention and for funds, having experienced the breakdown of his marriage due to gambling problems.

So, about the film….

Note that somebody has had fun with the film’s poster in photoshop creating multiple shots from the one image….

Emma Stone in her first role portraying a real person, plays tennis champion Billie Jean King. And she is pretty bloody good. Steve Carell meanwhile, (who is one of my favourite faces and voices on any screen anywhere ever) is cast as the “male chauvinist” Bobby Riggs. Carell draws on previous real life role experience such as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, and Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman) in The Big Short, and frankly his talents feel a little squandered in this film as Riggs is portrayed with cartoonish characteristics, and perhaps rightly plays second fiddle to Stone’s King.

As this is primarily a story about Billie Jean King (BJK) it may well have benefitted from telling the story purely from her perspective. Battle of the Sexes wants to be so many things, a biopic, a comedy, a drama, a sports story, a document about the struggle for womens rights, and in some areas it succeeds excellently, in other areas it falls short, attempting to cover too many bases for one movie.

Andrea Riseborough and Emma Stone in the film BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo by Dale Robinette. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

In an early scene we see Riggs at the dinner table with his son Bobby Jr. and wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Riggs is reproached for attempting to have a bet with the child about how many peppercorns might be in the pepper grinder on the table. It serves to suggest that he likes a bet, and this is reinforced when he makes an excuse to leave the house before going out to play tennis for a wager where he wins a car.

It feels unnecessary to flesh him out with this backstory, but it does set up that his wife can’t tolerate his gambling, and he can’t tolerate not gambling. This point is further reinforced when he attends Gamblers Anonymous, only to tell the group that their problem with gambling is a problem simply because they weren’t winning and if they were, there would be no need to stop.

This colouring in of Riggs personality is useful to establish what would motivate him to set up the tennis match in the first place, but why he chose to do it under the guise of a “Man v Woman” banner isn’t clear.

What is clear is that King faced enormous conflict, not just from the tennis head honchos who refused to offer concessions to her reasonable demands of increased prize money payments to female players, but within herself, as she struggled to deal with feelings she had towards other women.

In reality this was apparent as early as 1968, despite being married to Larry King, an instrumental figure in her tennis career and in her quest for equality, however she was unable to admit her true feelings to either him or her Catholic parents. (More here…)

In the film she befriends a hairdresser by the name of Marilyn Barnett, and they go on to form a more serious relationship that King can’t openly reveal the true nature of, for a variety of reasons, including the risk of losing sponsors. In reality, Marilyn Barnett was her secretary and the two began an intimate relationship in 1971 (two years before the BOTS game), with Marilyn suing King in 1981 for a share of her earnings.

King is a fascinating and complicated character who deserves a more detailed film than what is possible in this story. Snippets of dialogue reveal the depths of the struggle that she was faced with, when constantly being labelled a feminist, she replies with a line about simply being a female who plays tennis who wants to be paid the same as the male players. Surely that is not an unreasonable request, but in framed in the context of the era, it is treated as absolutely outrageous.

When Riggs calls her after midnight while she is on tour with her rebel Women’s Tennis Association, she gets off the phone and explains to Marilyn that is was “Some crazy hustler trying to get a game”.

To add further conflict, one of King’s biggest rivals in the game of tennis, Margaret Court (played authentically and bitchily by Packed to the Rafters Jess McNamee) is highly judgemental of King’s blossoming relationship with Marilyn. Despite her disapproval she does enjoy the fact that this will distract King from playing at her usual best.

Many of the key scenes are centred around King and Marilyn as you will them to enjoy a relationship as is their right, but are unable to do so openly with the outside pressures and scrutiny that prevented King from being openly gay.

The recent coverage of Margaret Court’s stance on same-sex marriage puts her role in a particularly bright spotlight.

Time and again after building these genuinely emotional passages where we side with King, the film flips back for some laughs as Carell’s Riggs visits his shrink only to reveal they are playing cards with each other and gambling toothpicks. A scene with Riggs in a “sauna suit” preparing for the big match plays for laughs, and this becomes frustrating that it feels like this is all Carell is allowed to do.

Court meanwhile revels in King’s “sin” and the associated “shame” while Marilyn does her best to allow King to feel free. A scene where Billie Jean and Marilyn are driving to the next match on the women’s tournament after their first night together is particularly special, even more so as it is accompanied by Elton John’s Rocket Man on the car radio, with King and John enjoying a lifelong friendship from the early 70s in real life.

Riggs spouts lines like “Women are lousy and don’t belong on the same court as men” and while clearly a preposterous statement, it sits uncomfortably in the cinema as it is neither funny, nor true. Sadly there was a portion of the population at the time who believed this was true.

At times BOTS feels like a mashup of previous Carell films including Anchorman, Little Miss Sunshine( the same directors obviously), and Foxcatcher, and this genre blending style muddies the waters about whether this is supposed to be a light hearted piece or a work of great significance. Sure a film can be both these things, but it is a difficult balance to pull off.

This tendency to veer from lighthearted to serious can cause the genuine moments of King’s achievements to be trivialised, such as when her tennis apparel fashion designer and part time confidante Ted Tinling whispers in her ear after the big match “Times change, you should know, you just changed them”, only for King to return to the court to dance with her teammates to close the film, and it makes the statement lack the gravitas that it deserves.

All in all it is an enjoyable film that bounces like a pinball through many ideas, but perhaps stops short of delivering any of the players to the heights, or depths that they deserve.

Great performances from the female cast (with the exception of Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman the gutsy businesswoman responsible for the financial viability of the female tour who plays her character like a SNL skit) are enough to make this a watchable if not highly memorable match in the vein of other sports infused titles like Moneyball,  Million Dollar Baby or The Fighter. The true story behind the tennis match dubbed Battle of the Sexes warrants further investigation as the ingredients make for a tantalising story that unfolds (almost) authentically on the big screen.

3.5 Stars. “Crowdpleaser With a Lot to Love”

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