I really don’t like sports movies. I don’t “get” sport, at all, really, so it’s no surprise that I’m not entertained by films about something that bores me. On the other hand, Battle of the Sexes ticks most of my other boxes. Feminist message. Large female cast. Lesbian protagonist. And I at least know how tennis is played. So, let’s see…
Gotta admit, I enjoyed it. The story follows the career of tennis legend Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), from her win at the US championship to the titular battle of the sexes match she played against Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). I am not quite old enough to remember it: I was born in 1972, which is when the movie begins. After her championship win, Billie Jean learns that the tennis ruling body plans to offer the women players a prize pot one eighth the size of that being offered to the men, on the grounds that the men’s tennis is more exciting to watch. She points out that, whether or not that’s true, just as many people buy tickets to watch the women’s championship. Since they bring in equal revenue, she argues, they should get equal pay.
When the men refuse to negotiate, she organises a women’s boycott of the championship and, aided by her friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) the women create their own league and championship. It is on this tour that Billie Jean meets Marylin (Andrea Riseborough) and falls in love.
Their affair is beautifully drawn; it is never gratuitous and also doesn’t shy away from the fact that she’s cheating on her husband. The film doesn’t over-dramatise her conflicted feelings, but they are there. The emotional toll affects her game, and she begins to lose. This is a gift to Riggs, who targets BJK’s rival, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) as a potential opponent instead.
Riggs is a compulsive gambler with marital problems who comes up with the “Battle of the Sexes” as a way of recapturing the glory days when he was a tennis champion himself. Basically he is doing it for the attention. (Today I suppose he would run for President instead.) He goes after BJK first because of the equal pay stand she took. Recognising that he’s an ass, she turns him down, repeatedly. But when she loses the championship to Margaret Court, Margaret is happy to accept the challenge. When Margaret loses, BJK feels she has to take him on to defend women’s tennis as a whole.
I don’t know if the real Bobby Riggs was as much of an asshole as he’s painted here. There isn’t much nuance in the character: he’s an arrogant pig, a narcissist and a compulsive gambler in total denial about his addiction. No redeeming features. It’s a gift of a role to Steve Carell, who plays him with scene-stealing relish. Emma Stone is good throughout, playing the determined feminist with just as much relish and the emotional scenes with sensitivity. Andrea Roseborough is great as Marylin, though there’s a slightly Harlequin quality to their romance that makes it seem like some license has been taken.
But that’s a nitpick. All in all it’s a very enjoyable film.