‘The Battle of Sexes’ explores Billie Jean King’s challenges – on and off the court

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.

A poster for the movie “Battle of the Sexes”

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.

Battle of the Sexes

A scene from the movie “Battle of the Sexes”

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.”

Feminism gets…

A Postscript:

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.

 

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

2 replies
  1. atlman says:

    “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.”

    Feminism gets…”

    I disagree. While fictional portrayals of real life feminist events are somewhat rare, there are plenty of movies dedicated to feminist ideology, including adaptations of feminist novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hours. In fact, feminist movies like “The Cider House Rules” and “The Intern” are made more frequently, have larger production and promotional budgets, gross more at the box office and win more awards than civil rights films. Also, there is the increasing tendency to make movies that deal with both feminism AND race. “The Color Purple”, “The Help” and “Hidden Figures” embody that trend, all of them earned over $140 million at the box office, and you would be hard pressed to find civil rights films solely about black men that earned anywhere near as much (“Glory”, “Selma”, “12 Years A Slave”, “Birth of A Nation”, “Amistad” “Red Tails”, “42”, “Malcolm X” etc. did not) or launch careers the way that “The Color Purple” did Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg or “The Help” did Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (also in “Hidden Figures”). Add it all up and it is a lot easier for Nancy Meyers and Sofia Coppola to get feminist movies produced and distributed – with them as primary screenwriters and directors no less! – than it is for Ryan Coogler to get a civil rights movie produced.

    Finally … feminism gets … “Wonder Woman”, a $150 million budgeted blockbuster directed by Patty Jenkins and grossed $400 million domestic at the box office. Based on a (usually) very feminist comic book that dates back to 1941. Sure, there have been black superhero movies before – Blade and Spawn – but they were B movies (unlike female superhero films Catwoman and Supergirl) and in particular Blade and Spawn were not racial justice characters. They were instead superheroes who happened to be black, and had the movies – and their comic source material – had white characters instead nothing would have changed. The same is true of “Black Panther” next year. As even the comic book character predated the civil rights organization of the same name and the character was consciously relocated from segregated 1960s America to a fantasy African nation that had never been touched by slavery or colonialism to sidestep racial issues, it won’t be the equal of Wonder Woman in themes. And it will be hard pressed to earn more than Ant-Man’s $180 million box office, let alone Wonder Woman’s $400 million.

    So, things are not as you perceive them in the least.Report

    Reply

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