By Boyd Jamison (Northern Ireland)
As Confused as Its Characters
Tennis is one of the few sports that I actually follow, probably owing to the fact that my mother watched it while I was growing up. Or maybe not, because I also remember her watching football, a sport I grew out of as I got older. But needless to say, when I saw that a movie about tennis was going to be coming to theatres I was totally up for it. That movie is Battle of the Sexes, a film about an actual tennis event in the 70’s when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs.
The film follows Emma Stone as Billie Jean King in her fight to gain gender equality in tennis. She does this initially by rejecting the Lawn Tennis Association when they offer only one eighth of the price money they offer the men for a tournament, and instead forms her own tennis tour, along with several other high profile female players. Meanwhile, Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs, thrown out of his house by his wife because of his gambling addiction, decides to take another gamble and challenges King to a match. King refuses but her rival, Margaret Court, played by Jessica McNamee, accepts.
When Riggs defeats Court it puts King is a difficult position. Riggs victory has seemed to affirm all that the Lawn Tennis Association has said about the male game being better than the female game. So, she feels that she needs to play to reinstate woman’s position in tennis. But to play and lose would, in King’s own words, “…set us back 50 years…It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” King accepts, with the caveat that she has final say in all arrangements.
Those invested in tennis history will know how the story goes. King wins in straight sets. This is monumental for women’s rights and their position in the sport. It changed a lot of people’s minds about women’s ability in tennis which is strange considering it was a young woman in the prime of her life, who trained for the match, playing a retired fifty-five year old man who spent much of the build up to the match relaxing and doing publicity stunts. That should be a no brainer but a lot of people in the Lawn Tennis Association just could not envision a woman ever beating a man in sport, regardless of age or preparation. There have been several minor matches between men and women since, most won by men, but I believe that since King vs Riggs men have taken their matches against women more seriously. If we ever get John McEnroe vs Serena Williams, McEnroe would at the very least train for his match.
For the most part, the film sticks very true to the history of the event, such as showing Stone training while Carell gets to show off his comedy chops by doing silly things like playing tennis with a frying pan or doing nude photoshoots. But the film lacks a lot of the gravitas of the actual event, in part because the match itself feels rushed. It’s like in Rocky when it gets to the big boxing match and the film shows a few full rounds before skipping to a montage. Except Battle of the Sexes jumps almost immediately to showing highlights of the sets. Ok, this is a film, so no one is there to sit through a three hour tennis match but seeing as this is a film about tennis it’s not a stretch to assume that its audience might like tennis and therefore be open to seeing at least some actual tennis.
Part of this is due to the film’s focus on King’s lesbianism. The film invents a storyline with King and Marilyn Barnett for the purposes of a personal detail of King’s life a dramatic event in the film. While it’s true that King was in a secret relationship with Barnett at the time of the Battle of the Sexes match, there’s no evidence that they had any falling out or that it affected her game. In the film, Marilyn feels sidelined when King begins training for the match and leaves, only to return just before the match. King is depicted as nervous and the arrival of Barnett gives her back some of her self-confidence. Which is odd, because earlier in the film Barnett’s presence was a distraction that caused King to lose matches.
Because the film wants to be about both sexual liberation and gender politics, it ends up with a confused theme and slightly unfocused plot. Besides these, it’s a fun film with strong acting and directing that makes for an entertaining night out and not much else. Ultimately, Battle of the Sexes is less about the spectacle and importance of the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ event and more about King’s secret sexuality, except there’s just not a lot to that story and it’s just not as interesting.
[at a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting]
Gambler’s Anonymous: Would anyone else like to share? How about you in the back with the glasses, sir? Yes, you, sir.
Bobby Riggs: My name is Bobby and I am an addict.
Gamblers: Hi, Bobby.
Bobby Riggs: You know, you folks aren’t here because you’re gamblers. You are here because you are terrible gamblers.
Gambler’s Anonymous: Okay, Bobby.
Bobby Riggs: These folks don’t need to stop doing what they’re doing, they just need to get better at it.
Gambler’s Anonymous: Okay. Alright, please.
[he throws a pack of cards on the table]
Bobby Riggs: Who’s dealing? Who’s in?