Movies that realistically depict the 1970s force those of us who remember the decade as firsthand observers to slog through several layers of subtext. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s film covers one of the seminal “progressive” events of that time, the contest between former professional tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) and the current women’s tennis champion, Billy Jean King (Emma Stone)—the first woman to be named Athlete of the Year by Sports Illustrated—which became more about personal PR than women’s rights. The more immediate problem with Battle of the Sexes is that Faris and Dayton’s direction doesn’t quite do justice to Simon Beaufoy’s nuanced script. The directing couple seem to be taking their technical cues from David O. Russell, who tends to substitute genre and period signifiers for potent plot points that would actually advance a story. Consequently, the viewer fixates on the musical cues, the automobile models, the wallpaper, the cheesy fashion sense, and relate it all to the story, as if those things determined character and attitudes rather than the other way around. Carrell and Stone, two actors firmly identified with the most recent decade of Hollywood, only intensify this cognitive dissonance.
This aspect also allows the viewer to feel slightly superior. Riggs was definitely a hustler and a clown. Once a champion, in middle age he has become an inveterate gambler who uses his rich wife’s money for his habit. Though seriously insecure, like a certain U.S. president Riggs compensates by ridiculing the weak and inflating his own accomplishments, which exist only in the past, so when “Mrs. King” becomes a media darling and the most visible representative of the women’s liberation movement, he exploits the situation by challenging her to a battle of the sexes to prove once and for all that men are physically better. As someone who once could spin his modest talents into PR gold, he knows how to take advantage of his “male chauvinist pig” reputation at the expense of King’s “hairy-legged feminist” image.
The best thing about Beaufoy’s version of these circumstances is that he does place them in a milieu where they make social sense. Riggs’ macho pronouncements and stances are presented in contrast to his paunchy mediocrity. It’s only his willingness to intimidate that sets him apart. At first, King, understanding his game, wants nothing to do with the challenge, because she can see how it might be impossible to win, not from an athletic perspective, but from a sociological one. For one thing, feminism was not a monolith. Her main rival is the Australian champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), a more traditionally minded woman who is recruited by the male-dominated professional tennis association to rail against suspected lesbianism in the sport. Naturally, King, who is married but having a clandestine affair with a woman, is conflicted. The filmmakers don’t help Stone’s difficult interpretation of this part of King’s development by surrounding her with sympathetic men—her bland husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), and gay clothing designer Ted (Alan Cumming)—who are simply there to justify her feelings.
The better part of the film deals with the Women’s Tour that King helped usher in, and which was the real feminist breakthrough for women’s sports. Once King accepts Riggs’ challenge following his defeat of Court, matters are problematic. It becomes increasingly difficult to separate the film’s attempts at dramatic entertainment from its social commentary. Of course, we all know what happens, but given that feminism has never been fully embraced by American society, even now, it’s hard to accept the movie’s conclusion that King, like her namesake in the civil rights movement with respect to African-Americans, made the world completely safe for female athletes. Just because Riggs lost so ignominiously doesn’t mean King won so unconditionally.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Cinema Sunshine Ikebukuro (03-3982-6388).
Battle of the Sexes home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Twentieth Century Fox