“Libbers not lobbers”
Between the title and trailer, I assumed Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‘ Battle of the Sexes would focus strictly on the circus surrounding the event itself. It’s not like there isn’t enough content to make that happen between the political, social, and athletic motivations behind the media frenzy. But screenwriter Simon Beaufoy knew he had to go further back to truly understand the climate that led to former champion and current senior tour member Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) calling up Billie Jean King (Emma Stone)—arguably the best women’s tennis player in the world and close to half his age—for an exhibition match pitting his self-proclaimed chauvinist pig against her vocal women’s rights activist. This story was always about more than a one hundred thousand dollar purse.
So we’re sent back a few months to King’s ascension to World Number One and the announcement that a future tournament was increasing its wealth disparity between men’s and women’s tennis to eight to one. We watch King take a stand opposite Jack Kramer’s (Bill Pullman) archaic notion that the female tour didn’t deserve anything more and a boycott turns into the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) by June of 1973. The climate turns volatile with the International Lawn Tennis Federation dropping those athletes who defected before Virginia Slims picks them up financially to fund their own tour. With King and the addition of her closest rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) shortly thereafter, the sport was forced to take notice. And of course so did Riggs.
Beaufoy writes this brash caricature of a man as the sideshow he was, brief vignettes of his life cutting into the important biographical greatest hits from King’s year. Make no mistake: this film is hers and hers alone. Riggs is merely an adversary for her to combat verbally and physically once the time comes to take the issue of women’s equality into her own hands. While we watch King risk everything for her cause—and those brave contemporaries who trusted her including agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), Peaches Bartkowicz (Martha MacIsaac), and Valerie Ziegenfuss (Mickey Sumner)—Bobby spirals further into gambling until his marriage (to Elisabeth Shue‘s Priscilla) implodes. As she fights tooth and nail for everything, he skates by on charisma and immaturity.
So don’t be surprised when you find yourself forgetting about him altogether for long stretches of time. His actions are solely here to stoke King’s fire. The showboating targets her pride while the result of his match with Court allows Kramer a few choice sound-bytes to attack her identity and that of all women the world over. Carell and Pullman may have speaking roles that move beyond a steady stream of cameos (John C. McGinley, Jamey Sheridan, and Mark Harelik), but they are little more than extended reaction shots meant to incite and/or portray defeat. The former’s Riggs does get a mildly sympathetic trajectory (although pitiable is probably a better adjective), but it truly is difficult to see him as anything more than an opportunistic clown.
The real meat to the tale therefore rests atop Stone’s very capable shoulders thanks to the complexity of Billie Jean King’s life during these tumultuous months. Her showdown with Riggs occurs less than half a year after the WTA’s start, a period of major upheaval both professionally and personally. Alongside the visible war against the patriarchy is a private battle raging between desire (an affair with Andrea Riseborough‘s hairdresser Marilyn Barnett) and image (her hetero-normative life with Austin Stowell‘s husband Larry). We’re made privy to the kind of psychological and emotional chaos that makes Rigg’s insanity look like a walk in the park. Here is a woman for whom tennis had always come first discovering the one thing more important than even that: her unbridled and unashamed happiness.
On those terms Battle of the Sexes is a resounding success. Dayton and Faris have a deft handle on the ebbs and flows of this crazy trajectory forward (despite its big secrets remaining such) with Stone and Riseborough excelling at every turn to imbue their budding relationship with an authentically awkward romance steeped in pure joy. Alan Cumming and Wallace Langham are added for comic relief and needed LGBT compassion and support while Stowell provides a welcome pillar of strength and understanding despite his obvious feelings of rejection. We really get a sense of who King was and the myriad landmines lying in her path. We watch her evolution from hero on the court to international icon breaking barriers off it. 1973 is when she becomes a legend.
But that success only makes the rest disappointing by comparison. Whether the often-distracting decision to cast recognizable comedians in bit parts as background dressing (Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell, and Bob Stephenson amongst others) or the excruciating monotony of every scene on the tennis court consisting of static long shots (hiding the actual players’ identities) sprinkled with abrupt close-ups after-the-fact, the film as a whole can drag to ensure we feel every bit of its 121-minute runtime. And while the Riggs shenanigans are fun, they’re also redundant. We’re left thinking any resulting drama from his nonsense finally taking its toll comes too late. The filmmakers want him to be the comic relief so bad that they sacrifice his humanity until we’ve already decided he’s not worth caring about.
It’s a shame since Carell delivers a great performance overshadowed by the machinations of his role being little more than a catalyst to the “real” story. He becomes a distraction, an afterthought. I’m not one to champion many biopics, but I think this film would have benefited from strictly focusing on King while treating Riggs as two-dimensionally as Kramer. She’s the protagonist and forever the character we yearn to see succeed. And her social consciousness that surrounds the titular event is much more captivating in the long run. Give us a little more before 1973 and a little more after to really capture King the women’s rights hero. Riggs never moved past footnote status for me and I’m not sure the attempt to make him more was warranted.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 121 minutes | Release Date: September 22nd, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Writer(s): Simon Beaufoy