Sexism is an ongoing issue in our society, one that has deep roots in the past and that leads to intractable resistance to any attempts at equal pay and equal rights. In the ‘70s, the push for gender equality made waves in a number of areas in American life, including the attempts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. But perhaps nothing took the topic of gender equality to the masses as the famed tennis match that pitted 55-year-old Bobby Riggs against 29-year-old Billie Jean King. On the tennis court, a national debate played out as sport and is now the subject of a feature film from the directing duo of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Battle of the Sexes has plenty of material that might speak to the modern zeitgeist and the lingering effects of sexism in our society, but instead it plays out like a parody of itself, a movie where the message is written bold-faced type as it fails to bring its competitors on equal ground as interesting characters.
In the early ‘70s, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was atop the women’s tennis circuit, but the inability of tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) to grant equal pay to the women players causes King and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to create their own women’s tennis tour. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is trying to make the most out of his life now that he’s off the tennis court. The former champion works in an office job that leaves him cold. He still hits the tennis court as a means for money, gambling with wealthy players at a local country club though his gambling is a problem for his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). Eventually, Riggs gets the idea that a competition between himself and the ascendant Billie Jean King could net him some celebrity and some money. At first King rejects his offers. Once Riggs takes on a defeats women’s champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King and Riggs agree to a showdown in the Houston Astrodome, $100,000 to the winner of the nationally televised tennis spectacle.
Battle of the Sexes places a majority of its focus on Billie Jean King and the strong performance by Emma Stone. It also focuses quite extensively on the tennis star coming to terms with her sexuality, engaging in a lesbian affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). It’s certainly an aspect of Billie Jean King’s life that’s worth exploring in this story, especially considering just how far the gay rights movement had to go, but it really distracts the film’s focus on the competing personalities. This isn’t helped by the script Simon Beaufoy, who undercuts this forbidden romance with a countless array of clichés including a brief split which has Marilyn returning moments before the big match and the words of wisdom from the gay dressmaker Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming). The sexuality of Billie Jean King isn’t bungled any worse than every other aspect of Battle of the Sexes.
A major problem with Battle of the Sexes is its imbalance in examining these two characters. The predominant focus of the film is on Billie Jean King. Despite the fact that she’s a sports and civil rights icon and Emma Stone gives a strong, nuanced performance, she’s the less interesting of the two competitors. Bobby Riggs and his hucksterism to make this happen is much more entertaining, but the character is often pushed to the sidelines. Long stretches of the film simply forget that Carell and his bombastic take on Riggs are part of the picture and the film greatly suffers for it. There’s the question as to how much of the chauvinism that Riggs became the poster boy for was genuine and how much was a ploy to prolong is celebrity for just a little bit longer and for a few dollars more.
Battle of the Sexes is the type of movie that you wished they put as much time into the script as they did replicating the aesthetic of the ‘70s. The dialogue is so blunt with its messaging you can envision the script having “THIS IS THE MESSAGE!” written and underlined on the margins of the page. The most galling moments of sexism don’t come from the leaden dialogue but from archival footage of Howard Cosell’s casual commentary reinforcing outdated sexist tropes. Attempts at humor fall flat and the drama never materializes beyond the most surface elements.
Never at any point does Battle of the Sexes achieve a rhythm to its story. The dialogue is overwhelming with its clichés and lack of wit. The pacing to the story is always off. Stranded in this lifeless flick are two solid performances by Emma Stone and Steve Carell, but they’re given little to work off of. Battle of the Sexes is just a flat biopic that more often than not feels like a bad parody. Billie Jean King is a great American who was willing to take on the worst aspects of our society and emerge victorious. Too bad there’s not a movie capable of honoring her legacy with a distinct personality worthy of its subject.