By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The so-called “battle of the sexes” tennis match, between women’s champ, Billie Jean King, and aging former men’s champ, Bobby Riggs, was an insulting stunt when it happened in 1973.
The movie “Battle of the Sexes.” starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs, isn’t a stunt and it’s only mildly insulting. But it’s certainly a missed opportunity.
Riggs was a hustler, but he picked his targets carefully. He didn’t, say, challenge Arthur Ashe to prove or disprove equality between the races. But women’s equality? Hell, yeah! Let’s settle this with a televised tennis match/three-ring-circus between a 29-year-old woman and a 55-year-old man.
Before we continue, please consider this: in 1973, a woman couldn’t get a credit card without her husband’s signature. In 1973, a pregnant woman could be forced to leave her job. In 1973, women couldn’t run in the Boston Marathon (something about a wandering uterus; I’m not kidding).
And in 1973, professional women tennis players got a fraction of the prize money awarded to men ($1,500 compared to $12,000). The ticket sales are the same, so why isn’t the money? That’s what King and her agent, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) pointedly ask ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) executive, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) who brushes them off with affable but ill-disguised condescension.
So they create their own women’s tour, which soon becomes the Virginia Slims Tour. Riggs, tired of his boring job at his father-in-law’s office and looking for his next hustle, takes note. He proposes a “battle of the sexes” match between himself and King’s “hairy-legged feminist,” as he amiably calls her.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) get off to a good start, chronicling, a la “A League of their Own,” how hard it was for women’s sports to be taken seriously. “Battle of the Sexes” has a fine time with Riggs’ calculated clownish antics. Women are fine on the tennis court, he says. “Who else would collect the balls?” And he loves putting the “show” in “male chauvinist.”
However, the filmmakers also want to tell the story of King’s sexual awakening. Early on tour, she meets a pixie-ish hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) and the two become lovers. If you think being a woman was hard back then, just try being gay. (Plus, King was married; plus, being outed at that time as a lesbian…sadly…would’ve, well, queered the whole women-as-equals battle)
Still, the Billie Jean/Marilyn scenes are both a distraction and a time suck. The screen goes all hazy and golden, the camera gets up-close and dewy-eyed and the soundtrack goes slushily romantic.
The problem is, this is an entirely different movie. Worse, it takes our attention away from the King/Riggs main event. There is so much else the movie could’ve explored in terms of women’s rights and wrongs back then (some of which, sorry to say, remain much the same today). So many other important and, yes, startling reminders of why second-wave feminism came about. The scenes with the supercilious and complacent Kramer may be a bit by-the-numbers, but they aren’t far from the truth. And they are chilling.
Stone and Carell are both marvelous — even if they are, at times, in different movies.
She captures King’s borderline naiveté (asked by Riggs if she’s a feminist, she simply replies that, well, she’s a tennis player who’s female), her easy athlete’s walk, her deep-down grit and her curious bravery. Carell, who’s apparently taken a shine to fringe historical figures (remember “Foxcatcher?”), conveys Riggs’ unabashed opportunism (boy, did he read the culture right) and his quick-witted manipulations. He could give our current President lessons in how to work the media.
Depressingly, “Battle of the Sexes” is a reminder of how the Women’s Movement is still somehow second-class. The Civil Rights Movement gets movies like “Selma,” “Loving” and “12 Years a Slave.”
Another sporting event, also billed as a “Battle of the Sexes” occurred a few years later. It, too, was much ballyhooed and broadcast on national TV. A superstar filly named Ruffian competed in a match race against Foolish Pleasure, the colt who’d won the Kentucky Derby. She was in the lead as they rounded the first turn when she broke her leg and had to be shot. Sort of like what happened to the Equal Rights Amendment. Look it up.