- Movie Rating -

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

| November 15, 2017

I don’t know one thing about the sport of tennis.  In fact, I really don’t know much about sports at all.  I’m not averse to it; it just doesn’t really interest me.  That’s because I’m less interested in the game than I am in the people involved (with that, I find ESPN’s “30 for 30” endlessly fascinating).  For me, scores and stats are always less interesting then hearts and minds.  What motivates these people to be the best in the world?  What falls upon them and their mental state of mind if they lose?

This was a question that I had hoped Battle of the Sexes would answer.  It tells the story of the famous 1972 gender power tennis match between 27 year-old feminist Billie Jean King and the chauvinistic 55 year-old Bobby Riggs.  The match had a lot riding on it.  This was the early 70s when women were struggling to find a measure of equality while the men who were running the country were dead-set on keeping them in their place.  The most horrific aftermath of this film is the information that things really haven’t changed all that much.

The film mostly focuses on King, played in a wonderful performance by Emma Stone who is able to capture King’s determination as well as her awkward, and somewhat angular, social skills.  As the movie opens, she is appalled when Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the Tennis Association, announces a tournament in which the male winner will take home $12,000 and the female only $1,500.  With that, she leaves the association and takes every worthwhile female tennis player with her.  She and the group’s appointed leader Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) take the ladies on the road where their skill and determination do not go unnoticed.

Riggs notices too, and determines to get back in the game to put King – and in fact womankind – back in the kitchen (that comes from actual dialogue both in the film and in real life).  But the buildup to the match deals very much in King’s personal struggle off the court.  On the road, she falls unexpectedly in love with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite her marriage to Larry (not the broadcaster).  The romance between these two women is tender and very sweet; but more importantly, the screenplay observes the distance they must keep between them.  It is easy to forget that at this moment in history, a rumor of a gay athlete could shut down a career.

The romance is actually at the center of this story, and maybe that’s for the best.  The LGBTQ community has been steadily building a body of films that weave a tapestry of their history, and the fact that filmmakers Jonathan Davis and Valerie Faris are willing to devote so much time to the struggle of King’s sexual identity makes the film more than just a recounting of a famous sports event.

I wish King’s struggles on and off the court had more of an equal balance.  Bobby Riggs is portrayed as a perpetual loser, a gregarious clown who puts on a show for the cameras and for his male supporters (publicity-wise, he is King’s polar opposite).  But off camera he’s just an obnoxious jerk.  He’s a 55 year-old gambling addict who is holding on to a threadbare marriage that is ready to crumble at any moment.  Steve Carrell does a decent job in the role, but Riggs is portrayed as such a fumbling clown that it weakens the opposition that he poses to King – there’s hardly a moment in the movie when you fear that she’s going to lose.

I wanted to like Battle of the Sexes much more than I did.  For everything that I liked, there was something that drove me crazy.  The film doesn’t challenge.  It tells a straight-forward story with the same bland quality of something made for television.  It doesn’t balance the stories of King and Riggs in a satisfying way.  Despite Emma Stone’s wonderful performance, there is a much better story, I feel, about Billie Jean King that is waiting to be told.  The only real balance here is that it is both fascinating and frustrating at the same time.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Drama