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I’ve spent a few days wrestling with why I don’t love the new, true life drama Battle of the Sexes from two of my favorite directors, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. The directors of the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine and the sublime Ruby Sparks have delivered a solid effort in Battle of the Sexes, but there is just something lacking. It’s not the performances either, as both Emma Stone and Steve Carell deliver standout takes on real life counterparts Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. So just what’s wrong with Battle of the Sexes?
Battle of the Sexes tells the story of the 1972 tennis match-up that pitted women’s liberation, in the form of female tennis champion Billy Jean King, versus the self-proclaimed champion of male chauvinism, Bobby Riggs, himself a former tennis champion from some years earlier. King had recently left the American Lawn Tennis Association to help launch the new Women’s Tennis Association after a fallout over equal pay with ALTA’s leadership, headed up by Howard Kramer (Bill Pullman).
It was a huge moment for women’s tennis as King and her manager, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) risked everything to take the world’s top female tennis stars out onto their own tour with the goal of proving they could earn just as much money as male tennis champions. It was an even bigger moment for King as the new tour also found her in a new relationship, as she began to find her sexuality for the first time by falling in love with a hairdresser named Marylin Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). All the while she’s married to her devoted husband Larry (Austin Stowall) and could lose everything if people found out about her affair.
Complicating Billy Jean’s life further is Riggs, who challenged King early in 1972, just after the launch of the WTA and after she ignored his pleas, challenged fellow women’s champion Margaret Court just as Court was coming off a recent upset win over Billy Jean. Court would go on to lose to Riggs and force Billy Jean to be the one to challenge Riggs in order to save face for women’s tennis and their potential earning power.
As you can tell from that description, there is a pretty terrific and dramatic story in Battle of the Sexes. So why doesn’t it work? Much of the problem comes from Academy Award-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s script, which fails to parse the parody-level male chauvinism with the actual sexism that Billy Jean King was up against. Beaufoy’s script renders Bobby Riggs as a lovable con-man who used chauvinism as a way of marketing and not the cruel dismissal of women tennis players it actually was.
The casting of Steve Carell doesn’t help either, though again, I do think Carell is terrific in the role. The problem is that Riggs is portrayed as lovable. That’s not to say that he wasn’t charming in the way he worked the media into a sexist frenzy, but the film has little care for how his marketing of sexism had a real life effect on women and women’s rights. It may not have been his intended effect. As portrayed by Carell, Riggs is just obsessed with money and making it by any means necessary, but what about finding out how he really felt about women?
Worse yet is the portrayal of Howard Kramer, who was undeniably a sexist pig but, as played by Bill Pullman, he’s a parody monster. Kramer was a terrible person and completely unfair to women in tennis, but in Battle of the Sexes he has zero nuance and is instead a mustache-twirling, scheme-hatching villain out of a cartoon. Kramer, along with the rest of the men in Battle of the Sexes, acts like a character better suited for a 70s era Will Ferrell comedy rather than a serious, dramatic look at the battle over equal pay for women.
It’s unfortunate because Battle of the Sexes has more than enough great parts to make a really great movie. Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough have a wonderful romantic chemistry that captures the awkward, halting romance of King and Barnett. Battle of the Sexes is set ten years before Billy Jean King would officially come out of the closet with her divorce from Larry and the revelation of her relationship to Barnett, which came out of the bitter end of their relationship and ended in a palimony suit.
Thus, we have a great deal of dramatic background and high stakes for this relationship and Stone and Riseborough are wonderful at communicating why each is willing to risk so much for the other. The rest of the women in the cast are also terrific, with Sarah Silverman naturally getting the funniest lines in the film. Natalie Morales is feisty and loyal in the role of Rosie Casals, a fellow player on the WTA tour who went toe-to-toe with a quite sexist in his own right, Howard Cosell, on the ABC TV broadcast of the King-Riggs match.
All of this is wasted sadly by Beaufoy and the directors, Dayton and Faris, allowing the male characters to languish as caricatures. Yes, many of the men involved around the real life match were bozos who felt comfortable saying sexist garbage in public, but something never feels real about these characters in Battle of the Sexes and their lack of reality makes it harder to get a good sense of just what Billy Jean King was up against even as Emma Stone does yeoman’s work to show Billy Jean’s many hardships.