The Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King is the first female athlete to make $100,000. She is right in the midst of her reign as the queen of the court. On the flipside is Bobby Briggs, 55, a former tennis champion for a brief moment in the late 1930s/early 1940s. He is also a gambling addict but one who wins more often than loses. Briggs gets the idea to play into the women’s lib movement of the time and hype himself as the ultimate male chauvinist, all in a bid to put on the Battle of the Sexes. This match would pit Briggs against King and help fill his pockets with endorsement money as well as build attention for U.S. Tennis. Meanwhile, King is dealing a personal revelation that will shake her life and her career.
The Battle of the Sexes is a perfectly competent biopic but often falls into those cliches so many films of this genre do. So much of the actual story behind this moment in sports history is glossed over and rushed to hit beats. As a result, background characters up painted in the broadest of strokes and loses any self of individuality. For example, Alan Cumming plays Ted Tinling, an openly gay British tennis player who became a designer of tennis outfits for female players. In real life, Tinling was banned from Wimbledon for designing scandalous women’s attire for the court where lace panties could be glimpsed during play. There is an entire film or documentary in this one character, yet Battle of the Sexes presents him as “old gay fashion guy.” I would challenge anyone who has seen the movie to even remember his name. What is frustrating is that Tinling is used in the closing scene of the film as a sort of comfort to King who is dealing with her sexual awakening as a lesbian. It feels out of nowhere and definitely not earned as these characters have no real previously established strong relationship or dialogue with each other.
That was the feeling has throughout most of this film, that an excellent documentary would be so much better. The story was intriguing enough that I did some google searching and found out the relationship between King and her hairdresser, Marilyn Barrett was much more complicated than presented. King put Barrett up in a beach house for five years and stayed married to her husband, Larry. When the Kings decided to sell the beach house, Barrett and King had a monumental falling out that led to Barrett throwing herself from the roof and become a paraplegic. After a long legal battle for palimony, the Kings held a press conference in the early 1980s where Billie admitted to the affair but tried to stave off the idea that she might be a lesbian. She and Larry finally divorced in 1987 after twenty-two years of marriage.
I was disappointed that we didn’t get a sense of the relationship between Billie and Larry. She claims Larry was the one who introduced her to the ideas of feminism and he even claimed he understood she had an attraction to women as early as 1968. He seemed like a very enlightened person for the time, and she says she truly was in love with him when they married. I think the complicated nature of their relationship would have been fascinating to explore, but he isn’t given much development in this story, nor is Marilyn Barrett. Andrea Riseborough does a beautiful job as Barrett but just isn’t given much growth beyond being the impetus of King’s sexual discovery.
The Battle of the Sexes feels like the sort of movie a studio makes to be submitted for awards season. It plays reasonably safe with social conventions, never exhibiting any sort of nuanced or interesting take on sexuality beyond anything else you’ve seen. Actors are focused more on the strength of mimicry than bringing real character to their roles. Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs is an excellent example of this, with seemingly no real consistency to the character. Emma Stone does a bit better with her portrayal of Billie Jean King and actually doesn’t feel like a pure facsimile. The scenes that hurt the most are the recreations of famous television moments where the dialogue feels like recited dialogue, in both words and delivery. This is an entirely fine film, but nothing truly memorable or profound.