Battle of the Sexes is a buoyant piece of propaganda about a buoyant, propagandistic episode in American culture: the 1973 tennis match between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs — a self-proclaimed chauvinist pig who crowed that women shouldn’t play on the same courts as men — and 29-year-old Billie Jean King, a crusader for women’s rights and a budding lesbian. (Married to a man, King had just begun to acknowledge her attraction to women in private.) Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy have a clear feminist and gay agenda. The villains are male chauvinists, with the exception of the Aussie player Margaret Court, who can be beat by Riggs — the movie implies — because she’s an ultra-religious homophobe who shares his paternalistic values. Only Billie Jean King, who embodies the future, can move those boundary posts.
If Battle of the Sexes is unsurprising to a fault, it’s by no means a double fault. The movie is very entertaining. And, in fairness, it’s hard to see how the story could be framed differently without a radical — or reactionary — rethinking. “The Battle of the Sexes” (as it was actually called) might have been the biggest feminist propaganda victory of all time: A prancing cartoon piglet got his comeuppance from a driving, no-frills activist who’d later come out as gay. The real surprise is that it took this long to turn it into a film.
What made that possible are two stars acceptable to the mainstream: Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs. I feared that Stone would be too unquenchably girlish (that’s generally her mode), but her diction is blunt and she has changed how she distributes her weight. It’s now toward the front. She captures King’s walk, shoulders leading, head angled down as if to hit any ball that should come her way. There is one characteristically Emma Stone moment, when a hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) lingers over King’s bangs and gives her the Look — and Stone seems so dazed it’s as if she has been chemically altered. (She has, in a way.) What keeps King from yielding quickly is her guilt over the inevitable: the devastation of her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell). (NB: His name is Larry King, but he’s not the Larry King, who has had 20 or 30 divorces — I forget the exact number — with no evident signs of devastation.)
Carell hams it up as Riggs — which seems to me just right given that Riggs was a ham, a caricature of himself by the time he issued those challenges to Court and King. This Riggs is wired from the start, a kept little man married to an heiress (a lockjawed Elisabeth Shue) who won’t let him gamble, which has made him buggy. Carell has been affixed with two prominent front teeth, and his squinty eyes are always casting about, looking for the main chance. He doesn’t lessen Riggs’s repulsiveness, but he’s Steve Carell, for crying out loud. He’s a clown who’s just begging to be given a hot foot.
Carell’s dearness lowers the stakes a bit, but they stay relatively high thanks to the most grueling of King’s hurdles. The movie shows how she and Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and World Tennis magazine editor Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) had to form a separate women’s tennis tour when the smirkingly chauvinistic chauvinist Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) smirks chauvinistically and says he has no intention of paying them anything close to the salaries of their male counterparts. Their tour gets off the ground when an executive at Philip Morris sees a way to thrust the Virginia Slims brand of cigarettes to the forefront by underwriting what became known as the Virginia Slims Circuit.
Virginia Slims had those delightful TV commercials (when cigarettes could be advertised on TV) in which smoking represented a flamboyant declaration of independence from the repressive patriarchy. So Battle of the Sexes, which is rated PG-13 and thus open to kids, honors Philip Morris’s contribution without mentioning that women’s assertion of “freedom” would also lead to cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. Given the historical truth, it’s a tough call, but I’m still going to cry, “Foul!” Smoking should always mean an automatic R rating. The studio, Fox Searchlight, should give a big chunk of change to the anti-smoking campaign of its choice.
I’m surprised by the pro-smoking stance given that almost everything else is so p.c. I figured that Alan Cumming’s first appearance as the women’s wise and wisecracking gay dresser was just a setup, that he’d develop into someone not so stereotypical. Nope. He gets wiser and more wisecracking and more inspirational as the movie goes on. He says, “Times change. You should know. You just changed them. Someday we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.” I couldn’t agree more but that’s a little on the nose. At least there’s some ambivalence in Riseborough’s portrait of Marilyn Barnett. Marilyn is plainly indifferent to the pain of Larry, who’s a dear. She even smirks a little. The end crawl doesn’t mention that, some years later, Barnett’s palimony suit is what outed King as gay, but that must be why she’s not viewed as the Life Force.
Battle of the Sexes also doesn’t acknowledge the persistent rumor that Riggs threw the match, perhaps to pay off a whopping gambling debt to the mob. That doesn’t ring true to me because the amount he was said to have owed – $100,000 — is exactly what he’d have won. What’s indisputable — and what the movie does show — is that he stopped training in the month before the match, which here signifies his smug chauvinism. The idea that King’s feminist nobility wasn’t the cause of her victory wouldn’t jibe with the filmmakers’ worldview. And you know what? That’s fine by me. That she kicked his chauvinistic ass is the story we want — and still the story we need.