Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writers: Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough
Runtime: 121 minutes
Mixed sports metaphors aside, there has been a lot of commentary as of late about late-night hosts, sportscasters, and athletes “staying in their lane.” But sports are inherently political, and have been for decades. Just take the Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs biopic Battle of the Sexes.
The film centers around a globally-televised tennis match held in Houston, Texas in 1973, wherein washed-up men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell looking every bit the part with period perfect hair and buck teeth) challenged the best female player in the country in order to prove once and for all that men are the superior sex. The notorious gambler was seeking a fun wager and cultural relevance in a sport known to favor new up-and-comers. The greater significance of his claim and fact that nearly everyone thought it to be unequivocally true, despite his advancing age (55) and declining fitness, was lost on him. But for Billie Jean King (expertly played by distinguished actress and tennis novice Emma Stone), the most highly televised match of the decade was about so much more than tennis. Barred from the International Lawn Tennis Federation for insisting that women receive equal prize money as men (her request being only fair given that their events sold the same number of tickets as the men; a request oft echoed in locker rooms and Hollywood negotiations still), she and a handful of other female tennis players put their careers on the line and independently established their own tennis association (the WTA is now recognized as the principal organizing body of women’s professional tennis).
In real life and onscreen, Virginia Slims cigarettes sponsored the inaugural WTA Tour. I was struck by how few progressive movements are without their moral failings. Billie Jean and her crew were waging a just war against the patriarchy, misogyny within professional sports, and the status quo. To do so, they had to accept money from big tobacco - an industry not without its own deep-seated sexism. The cigarettes were marketed to young professional women with taglines such as, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” And in these trying times in which we live, I cannot help but wonder, “Have we?”
Since everyone knows how the titular battle ends, the film mines alternative storylines for dramatic effect, shifting the focus from the culminating tennis match to the tumultuous off-court personal lives of its competitors. Billie Jean is confident and composed in her career, never appearing to let the pressure of competition or higher calling unnerve her. That is until she begins exploring her sexuality through a flirtation with the tour’s female hairdresser. This storyline is the least fleshed out in the film. Literally. Their meet-cute at a Los Angeles hair salon is all glamourous close-ups and sensual hair tousling. Even the subsequent love scene is filmed as if to titillate instead of develop this relationship and storyline. As with Marilyn’s buttons, Billie Jean fumbles with the burgeoning relationship ashamed of both her infidelity and identity. She was willing to put her career on the line for economic equality within her chosen profession, but was not prepared to make that sacrifice in or for her personal life.
Riggs is likewise dealing with marital strife mostly brought on by his notorious gambling habit. The audience is given a fuller picture of his relationships with his wife and two sons, but that narrative is of no interest to me. The story of a middle-aged white man watching television in his Rolls-Royce after having been kicked out of his mansion is as tired as Bobby Riggs’ legs in the third set.
Other than juxtaposing Billie Jean’s training montages with Riggs’ braggadocious shenanigans, this is anything but a traditional sports movie. Instead, the filmmakers have attempted to place a legendary sports story within its larger historical and cultural context. Of the 1973 “Battle,” Billie Jean later said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match.” Nearly fifty years out from her historic victory, one cannot view this film and this story beyond the frame of the “Battle of the Sexes” that was the 2016 Presidential Election. Although, production preceded this event and administration, the theatrical release brings new relevance. But this film is as much about Bobby’s lobs as it is about Billie Jean’s lib(eration). Both characters are allowed equal playing time. Riggs’ chauvinism is performed for laughs. As if we can casually dismiss these comments because it is no longer politically correct for men to speak that way. In aiming to make an uplifting crowd pleaser, the film allows Billie Jean’s win to absolve Bobby and his white male cohorts of their backwards beliefs. She is our outspoken, unifying hero. He is made to be a tragic figure deserving of sympathy.
There is a great story central to Battle of the Sexes. It is interesting, at times maddening, and still disappointingly relevant. The main characters are grounded by strong performances from Carell and Stone. And Sarah Silverman, bringing her characteristic wit and sarcasm, steals scenes as the chain-smoking tour manager. Someone has to keep Virginia Slims in business! I really wanted to love this film. In the end, it fails to juggle the many tennis balls in the air. Like Billie Jean King renegotiating the terms of tournament winnings, I found myself wanting more.
Late in the movie, Natalie Morales (playing fellow WTA pioneer and “Battle” commentator Rosie Casals) is wearing a Virginia Slims tee shirt with that self-congratulatory slogan. The corresponding print campaign of which featured beautiful white women holding cigarettes while impeccably dressed in pinstripe suits, (now infamous) pussy bow blouses, and even plaid flannel. Looking at them now, I desperately want to believe these women, who seem to suggest with their power poses and knowing smiles that progress has been made.
That is no more true now than it was in 1973. After defeating Margaret Court handily, Bobby extended his challenge to any woman who thought she could beat him. To him, it was a quaint joke; a way to goad Billie Jean, who initially declined his offer of a match. In personal and professional pursuits, there is much discussion of choosing your battles. Though sometimes our battles choose us. Billie Jean won the battle and it symbolically represented a significant victory for all women. But every day the war wages on (and in) courts across the country. And, baby, we’ve got a long way to go. Do not let a cigarette ad or fauxminist film tell you otherwise.