Film: Battle of the Sexes
Directors: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
As I watched Battle of the Sexes, a colorful and intimate sports film by Hollywood’s premiere husband-and-wife directorial duo (they made the sublime Little Miss Sunshine), it took me a while to realize I was not watching a comedy. Lots of it feels like a comedy, probably because the idea that a tennis match could determine the equality or inequality of men and women is ridiculous. The movie carries a bit of that spirit. But it is also a nonfiction film, about an instance—the rabidly publicized King-Riggs match of 1973—when that idea was not taken lightly at all, and macro-ping-pong did shoulder the women’s liberation movement. The movie carries a lot of that spirit, because however ridiculous it might be to vest two people carrying wiry sticks and a fuzzy ball with the power to validate an entire gender, it’s no less ridiculous to pay a female athlete one-eighth of a comparable male athlete’s salary.
There’s a sobering moment around the middle of the film where Faris and Dayton sneak in some archival footage of celebrities, circa ’73, predicting the results of the media-circus match between recently deposed world champion Billie Jean King (in the movie, Emma Stone) and tennis relic Bobby Riggs (in the movie, Steve Carell). Many of the featured opinions, namely those of the male interviewees, are patently sexist. It was here, for me, that Battle of the Sexes clicked with its very real context. By and large, the movie didn’t submerge me into the river of history, like some great true-story films do. Its approach is more dioramic. Battle takes place in a snowglobe of the ‘70s, a separate (but not irrelevant) little world, where there’s male camaraderie in one corner and female camaraderie in another, and everybody wears a lot of autumn colors.
I don’t say this in criticism. I’m not sure I think this is a great movie, but I think the way it fashions its own world is great. And maybe necessary, too, to reveal what it reveals: America remembers Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs playing a tennis match, but Battle of the Sexes is about each of them playing a very different game than the other.
By the time she R.S.V.P.s “yes” to the old champ’s challenge, King realizes that she’s vying with more than just a legended forerunner: she’s crossing swords with all of his generation, most of her generation, and the wide, wide world of sports itself. There’s a levity to all the “Lobber vs. the Libber” pap that’s used to sell the King-Riggs showdown, and everyone’s attitudes give at least a smiling hat-tip to female power. But beneath this there is still a fundamental trust in the athletic superiority of men. Billie Jean is competing against discrimination toward her sex—as well as persecution for her sexuality, which the movie touches on in a way that is marvelously unpreachy. Her determination is clear. (Mostly from the writing; I didn’t see much sweat under that John Denver haircut. If Stone garners another bouquet of award nominations, it’ll be for her nimble work in the love scenes with the girl who gives her that characteristic ‘do.)
In the symbolic sizing-up of women and men, Battle takes Billie Jean’s side (i.e. the right side). On the court, though, Riggs is left a little sympathy. Overall, I thought his characterization was more nuanced and animated than King’s. Steve Carell, in beaver teeth and porcupine sideburns, plays him as a blustery, frustrated has-been, whose energy has outlived his career. He’s retired and become a bored salaryman by the time the story begins—an old dog with a basket of new tricks and nobody to watch them. The idea of a face-off with Billie Jean lights his fire because it promises a reunion with the thing he loves: not the game of tennis, but being good at tennis. Being, as far as he knows, the best at tennis. He moans and groans through Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and all the while his real addiction is showboating. The glory of the game means little or nothing to Riggs—and neither, the film intimates, do the gender politics that sponsor his comeback. He spews a lot of sexist rhetoric, but apparently only for the press. Nothing Bobby says in private suggests that he believes in any of his “Sugar Daddy” bravado. He’s not really a pig; he’s just a ham. Labelling himself a male chauvinist is the equivalent of putting a lampshade on his head—it grabs attention. (I wonder if Andy Kaufman was watching.)
Whether this describes the real Riggs, I have no idea. But it’s the Riggs who appears in Battle of the Sexes, and that’s why his parts of the movie can play as comedy. The absurdity of transposing social movements onto sports rivalries isn’t necessarily lost on Bobby Riggs. At least, he isn’t concerned with how this rivalry actually relates to women’s lib. The problem is—and here’s where the filmmakers see a story relevant to 2017—that playing a role ironically can have unironic, fully proportionate consequences. He knows he’s playing a bigger game than tennis, but he doesn’t see the bigger game beyond that. The more Bobby vamps, the more seriously Billie Jean has to work. Never mind the paycheck; that’s the real inequality.