The thing about “Battle of the Sexes” is that, no matter who you are, you’re going to like it.
It’s a friendly, approachable film: inoffensive, you might say.
That’s not a criticism as much as a lament. It’s a well-made, well-acted period piece, but it rides its narrative rail with white knuckles – wanting, but not quite able to say what it’s driving toward, and avoiding conflict like you or I might avoid an ex.
“Battle of the Sexes” belongs to Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), the most successful female tennis player of her day. When she realizes that the men on the USLTA are being paid eight-times more in championship prize money, she starts her own tour (the Virginia Slims Circuit) and takes the best women players with her.
They don’t have sponsorship, but that’s a problem for maybe five minutes. Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), founder of World Tennis magazine and chainsmoker, soon announces that Virginia Slims will bankroll the whole thing.
The tour seemingly does well, though King does not. She meets a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), with whom she starts a sexual relationship. King is also married to her husband Larry. It’s clear that her homosexuality has been repressed and this, her first same-sex relationship, represents more of her true person. Still, it’s the 1970s and this is a illicit relationship. It weighs on her. She loses a match to Margaret Court, and her number one ranking with it.
The movie wants viewers to fill in the dots themselves. Being a lesbian is bad, we’re told. The tour can lose sponsors, we’re told. But what do we see? Larry recognizes what’s going on immediately, yet he supports her through it all. No one on the tour says a thing. There’s no conflict. If we know our history, we know there is, of course. But we don’t see it here.
King’s loss to Court echoes further than just the rankings. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, with some truly impressive fake teeth) is a gambling addict and showman and decides, with the Virginia Slims split from the USLTA, now’s the time for a gendered showdown between himself and the best women’s player. He wipes Court off the…court, driving King to accept his request for a match.
The last quarter of this film rolls us to this final match, the uppercased Battle of the Sexes, and it’s in this run-up that the film really shines. Carell’s Riggs fully unleashes his faux-chauvinist schtick in the match’s promotion, fully hamming it up. It’s in this ham routine that Carell’s Riggs becomes endearing. You get the sense that he’s not a degenerate gambler, he’s a competitive, yet goofy show-off. He can’t help it.
In the end, King takes Riggs down in straight sets. It’s a big moment with real-world significance, and in the years since King has become a champion of equality for women and the LGBTQ community – which the film acknowledges. For me, however, the film has trouble toeing the line between biography and fiction.
“Battle of the Sexes” is another in a long line of fictionalized real-life stories – stories “based on a true story.” And while this form of story inspiration makes fiscal sense – if you know the story there’s less leg work marketing needs to do – creatively it presents its challenges. A film is not a documentary: it’s beholden to nothing but its own narrative, while the latter is beholden to the truth.
When narrative is compromised for the sake of historical accuracy, a problem occurs. Yes, in truth Larry stays with Billie for years until their eventual divorce; Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) stays with Bobby. But films afford storytellers the license to change, to rearrange pieces into a satisfying narrative. “Battle of the Sexes” yearns for accuracy above all else – they even reanimate Howard Cosell to give play-by-play the final match! – robbing viewers of a fully satisfying film. (There’s a larger article to be written about culture sites reviewing films on the basis of historical accuracy…as if our society will stop at nothing to generate page views, but I digress.)
If the filmmakers wanted to make a documentary, why did they hire Emma Stone to play Billie Jean King?