It’s tough to imagine a more volatile climate for a film like Battle of the Sexes to be released in, and it’s through the current political lens that most audiences will view this retelling of the iconic match between women’s tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and men’s tennis great Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). What’s missing in-between the pull quotes of this occasionally heavy-handed screenplay is a more compelling biopic, something with a little more meat for it’s very talented leads.
All you need to know about the history is that in 1973, two tennis players, one female, one male, played against each other to a packed arena of fans. For Riggs it was a publicity stunt, a way to drum up the money he felt he was being denied playing on the senior tennis circuit. The gambling habit didn’t help either. For King, it was an opportunity to show the world not that women were better than men, but they deserved equal respect as human beings. Battle of the Sexes places most of the emphasis on King’s journey from tennis icon to civil rights activist, but Riggs comes off more sympathetic than perhaps he should in no small part because of Steve Carell’s performance.
King is all about her game first, but as the film wears on we start to see how emotion works to her advantage, much to the maligning of many male colleagues around her. It soon becomes more than just her game, but advancing the image of women’s sports in general in the eyes of the public. Stone plays these moments well, allowing a glimpse into the pressure that comes with taking on the mantle of women’s empowerment on your own. That showdown with Riggs isn’t just entertainment, it’s a statement. The opening sentence in what would become a long dialogue about women’s sports and the value of female industry.
I am continually amazed at what a great film actor Steve Carell is. It’s a trite statement but few people can capture a complicated personality like Bobby Riggs and make him sympathetic. As a tried and true feminist, I couldn’t help but look at a defeated Riggs alone in his locker room and feel a little hurt on his behalf. Because unlike Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a sexist sportscaster whose actions speak just as loudly as his words, Riggs doesn’t believe whole cloth the bawdy rhetoric he spouts for the cameras. He’s a chauvinist yes, but a hustler and opportunist first and foremost. And Carell truly possesses the physicality of an aging sportsman past his prime who is fighting to be relevant again.
In the end, I just wish this biopic pushed a little more out of “feel good” territory and into the more complicated dynamics that swirled around King during this time period. Instead, the film’s screenplay (by Simon Beaufoy) gives us, at times, painful and unnecessary reminders about what this film is about rather than delve into those topics with any great depth. The last line of this film uttered by Alan Cumming’s Ted, the women’s tennis outfitter and a gay man, is literally, “One day we will be able to be who we are, and love who we love.” King’s sexuality is explored in this film as well as the trouble such an admission to the public would bring, but to button up a film with such an eye roll of a line rivals The Imitation Game‘s “today we call them computers.” It ruins the performances of the film with forced sentiment and verbal clunkiness. The moment itself works much better without that line of dialogue. Cumming’s character hugging King after her triumph tells us everything. How far she has come, and the work that still remains.
Sadly, Battle of the Sexes doesn’t live up to the greatness of its own performances.
Battle of the Sexes opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.