starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman
written by Simon Beaufoy
directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
by Walter Chaw A movie that will make no one uncomfortable while reassuring the most blinkered that they've given at the office, Battle of the Sexes could be directed by anyone, star anyone, and it would still be exactly the same edgeless, meaningless, obsequious, instantly-obsolete artifact, desperate to be loved, expecting to be feted come awards season. It's the casserole recipe that won in 1950, and Emma Stone continues her terrifying run as Audrey Hepburn's career by ticking off her Children's Hour/LGBTQ-sensitivity check-box. Stone's blank, not "effortless" but rather "not trying" and "under-written" performance, is essentially a black wig, glasses, and a half-open pucker. Her Billie Jean King is a cipher who mouths platitudes about "equality" when what she really means is that she's a vacuous narcissist who steamrolls everyone trying to help her in a movie that is in fact as woman-hating as the men it sets up as straw...well, men. To be clear, Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in an exhibition match does not mean that women and men are "equal." It doesn't mean they're unequal, either. It actually means nothing. Indeed, that King, at the age of 29, in peak condition and at the pinnacle of her profession and training hard, beat a 55-year-old former world champion whom the film takes pains to reassure is not only not training, but also drinking and womanizing and popping mysterious pills while doing a full-blitz promotional campaign (he played the entire first set in a branded windbreaker), says the opposite, I think, of the intended message. Understand that at this point in the sport, in 2017, it's not controversial that women and men do not compete at the same level. You're getting mad, I can tell. This is Serena Williams, the undisputedly greatest woman tennis player in the history of the sport, in 2013 on "Late Night with David Letterman":
Actually it's funny, because Andy Murray, he's been joking about myself and him playing a match. I'm like, ‘Andy, seriously, are you kidding me?' For me, men's tennis and women's tennis are completely, almost, two separate sports. If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes. No, it's true. It's a completely different sport. The men are a lot faster and they serve harder, they hit harder, it's just a different game. I love to play women's tennis. I only want to play girls, because I don't want to be embarrassed. I would not do the tour, I would not do Billie Jean [King] any disservice. So Andy, stop it. I'm not going to let you kill me.
Williams did play an exhibition game at the Australian Open in 1998 against the 203rd ranked men's player, Karsten Braasch of Germany. Braasch, drinking champagne and smoking during changeovers, won 6-1 and then 6-2 over Serena's sister, Venus. You know what? I totally agree with you, it doesn't mean anything. Here's the larger issue: Why would it be "equality" for a woman to beat a man, anyway? What does it prove? The last-ranked player on the women's tour could beat me in tennis. She could beat me in running twenty yards. Or standing up from the couch. You've proven what? That I'm fat, old, and out of shape? King shuts up a loudmouth. It's an act of vengeance. We react to it in an ugly way because it's an ugly act. It's not an act of justice and it wins nothing. In shutting him up, she has consented to do what she warned others not to: engage in this dishonourable public show.
Battle of the Sexes has a moment where King upbraids a reporter for a sexist remark, asking if he thinks his dad is better than his mom and then, pointing a finger at him, says that if she wins, he has to stop saying things that imply he does think that. Maybe that's what Battle of the Sexes is about, putting this pathetic little reporter in his place, goddammit. What if he...is us? But she makes the point eloquently. Sexism is a deep-rooted, culturally-embedded cancer that privileges gender differences and can lead women to believe the way they must achieve equality is through masculine measures of success. There's a subterranean hint that the film wants to go there when it has one of the women players whine about her bangs and ask for a permanent hairdresser to accompany the tour (all of the women like that idea)--the suggestion being that women can be women and still be badasses. Yet it plays off this moment like a jokey joke and that's that. Girls are silly. Not: there's power in being a woman.
I do like that Battle of the Sexes begins with King and her peers in women's tennis wanting equal purses for their matches, given that they attract the same-size audience. That makes perfect sense. What the film doesn't tell you is that Wimbledon didn't offer equal purses until 2007, which is only...let's see...34 years after the so-called "Battle of the Sexes." Thumbs up, right? The major four "grand slam" tournaments are equal in their prize distribution--that's not true of most other tournaments. Women players generally earn 80% of what the men earn. At the Western & Southern Open, the biggest pre-US Open event, in 2015, the top man got $731,000. The top woman (Serena Williams) received $495,000. Nothing that happens in this film changes the one issue that is presented with any substance. (Although the US Open did changeover in 1973 with a grant from a deodorant company and at King's urging, it was before the "Battle of the Sexes.") It may have enough wit to know that, because it doesn't mention this little kernel in its closing title cards. King did a lot of wonderful things for women's sports, including working for Title IX, after the events depicted here, of course. But Battle of the Sexes isn't about that.
For the uninitiated, braggart and serial gambling addict Bobby Riggs, a former grand-slam champion, decides as a very lucrative gag to engage in the women's lib movement by deriding women and challenging women players to play exhibition matches against him. After King declines his invitation, top-ranked player and full-time horrible person in real life Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) agrees and is summarily humiliated on national television. Enraged by Riggs and the gloating of chauvinist pig/tennis organizer Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), King storms off to contemplate her date with destiny. Saucy, garbage-talking women's organizer Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, typecast) mutters something about "fate calls" or some shit because this is how bad writers like Simon "Slumdog Millionaire" Beaufoy write when they want to give idiots the tingles. The amount of hate directed at Court, however, and the way she's always shown with her husband and baby in tow, is aggressive and, if not intentional, then careless as fuck. Not for nothing, Court is the only character, other than King's schlep beard Larry (Austin Stowell), to have anything remotely negative to say about King being obviously a lesbian. This is because in a movie maybe about feminism, it reserves its most unkind portrayal for this woman and for Bobby's wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who is wealthy and self-absorbed enough to have a mansion with a huge painting of herself in the living room and to be bankrolling Bobby's gambling addiction. Priscilla has a good moment in which she tells Bobby to hit the road for lying to her constantly, then the end-credit cards, for laughs, reveal that Bobby never did give up gambling even though Priscilla took him back. Yeah. That's real funny, you guys. This is when defenders of the film will say that it's based on a true story.
Let's talk, too, about whether Battle of the Sexes is about LGBTQ rights. While married to Larry (who is a really great guy), King starts a flirtation with hippie hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), who tells King that King is very pretty. Later, we hear Howard Cosell say in his archival play-by-play that King is very pretty, and we groan in our woke consciousness. I'm not saying it's the same thing. I'm saying the film isn't smart enough or skilled enough to map the distinction. Marilyn follows King, they go dancing, then they start making out. King says, No, this isn't right, then fucks Marilyn anyway. Marilyn becomes an open secret, so that when Larry shows up to surprise his wife, gay fashion designer Ted (Alan Cumming) calls King's room to warn her. It's funny in the way a bad ABC sitcom about gays is funny. (It's not funny.) Ted, by the way, does a lot of great gay reaction shots, except this isn't a John Waters movie. It's a Serious movie about Issues. Ted does get the last word when he hugs King, tells her she's solved male chauvinism, and can't wait for her to solve homophobia, too. What Battle of the Sexes is saying is that King awakens, as she must, to her lesbian desires under the tender Penny Lane ministrations of Marilyn, while Larry, well...the closing credits inform us that Larry understands and King and her wife (not Marilyn) are godparents to the also-remarried Larry's kids. This is what's called a "rationalization for writing a piece-of-shit character." Consider the scene in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird where one of the high-school boys has a breakdown when talking about having to tell his parents that he's gay. That movie, not about LGBTQ issues, is more empathetic and perceptive towards them in this one moment than all of Battle of the Sexes. There's no real human collateral to this person's actions. The movie panders to a workshopped demographic. Larry has a speech he ends by saying that King is a "good woman." She says that isn't true. Then he says something along the lines of how she's a lot better than she suspects. This is called "bullshit, shut the fuck up."
No, Battle of the Sexes is just a slightly gayer Rudy. It's an "underdog" sports-uplift story complete with training montage. The measure of its success will be whether or not its target audience notices it has an element common to every single film they likely abhor. It does deep dishonour to its possible subjects by being pabulum, easily- consumed and digested. It's the lesbian awakening movie you take your grandparents to, because it's entirely unthreatening and no one will be embarrassed. I'm not sure that King would want a movie of her life and of this event to be entirely uncontroversial. I feel like the King of 1973 wouldn't, at least. I was born in 1973. On the schoolyard, the first time I ever heard her name was in the context of her sexual orientation. An extraordinary amount of cruelty involved in our culture has never been resolved, merely forced underground and into different coded expressions of intolerance and fear. I didn't even know she was a tennis player until I was in high school. What Battle of the Sexes misses is the opportunity to make a movie that isn't a stupid, self-satisfied situation comedy with a "big match" at the end to make everyone leave the theatre with a giant shit-eating grin. It misses the chance to create characters of depth, to demonstrate that it doesn't think it's a good idea to venerate a troubled asshole as some kind of lovable clown, to not take potshots at real people with families for no noble purpose. In celebrating King, it loses sight of how much it's abusing every other character. And then it doesn't celebrate King. She's just the bully, in the end, who beats up the more pathetic bully. Battle of the Sexes should've been an important movie. Instead, it's going to be a popular one. It may even win Emma Stone her second Oscar. That's two more than Gary Oldman and David Lynch have. How's that for equality?