Battle of the Sexes would be a fascinating film to watch in a class studying dynamics of sexism, power, and work. You have a woman doing the heavy-lifting, burdened with the impossible task of representing her entire gender, and a man who gets to have fun doing a thing he loves. The expectations are different, the metrics of success are different, and the way people will talk about and evaluate performance will be different. I use “will be” – future tense – intentionally. The juxtaposition we have the most to learn from in Battle of the Sexes isn’t Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs; it’s Emma Stone and Steve Carrell.
Stone and Carrell are certainly not in opposition in the way their characters were, and it goes without saying that the stakes of making a movie about sports and feminism in 2017 has lower stakes than the actual work King and women like her were doing in the 1970s. I’m even willing to concede that some of the imbalance between the two actors is built in to the true story of the 1973 tennis match on which the film is based. But although there is a lot that is very good about Battle of the Sexes, it’s tough to get over the fact that the film is constructed in such a way that the person doing the majority of the work and having the least fun is – surprise! – the woman playing the revolutionary feminist.
Rather than focusing primarily on the legendary exhibition match between Billie Jean King, a champion in her prime, and Bobby Riggs, a former great desperate to return to relevance, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) spends most of the film establishing the larger context of each character, the world of tennis, and feminist movement of the era. The decision to hold the match doesn’t even happen until over halfway through. It’s a smart move in that the background and build-up is interesting, and it makes the movie accessible to audiences who don’t know or care about tennis. The trouble is that in separately establishing the background and motivations of each of the two main characters, alternating between them as Battle of the Sexes builds to the climatic match, Baeufoy creates a false equivalence. Riggs is struggling with problems in his marriage and a gambling addiction, and King is struggling with problems in her marriage related to her sexuality, plus she’s also leading the charge for feminism in athletics and the larger world in a time of rampant, outright sexism.
Riggs is also, as played by Carrell, charming and often sympathetic. And he’s funny. Even in some of Riggs’ more dramatic moments – at a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting or visiting his therapist – Carrell gets most of the best jokes in the film. He’s a fantastic comedic actor and he knocks them out of the park.
Emma Stone is a great comedic actor as well – Easy A is easily one of the best romantic comedies of the last ten years – but I guess she’s too busy in this movie doing justice to the conflict and struggle that King was dealing with, so Beaufoy can’t give her much room to exercise those muscles. I’m not saying the gravity of what King was doing didn’t need to be accurately portrayed, and Stone does very good dramatic work here. But where King is limited to being flawed but unquestionably noble and strong, there seems to be a lot more dimension given to the Riggs character – a guy, by the way, who plans to “put the show back in chauvinist.”
To be fair to Carrell, he is excellent in the role. There’s a lot of Michael Scott in Bobby Riggs, and you leave the movie thinking that there’s no one else you can think of who would have been a fit for this role. The movie’s hidden gem, though, is Austin Stowell as Billie Jean’s husband Larry. You almost don’t notice Larry early on in the film, but throughout, as he comes to understand the true reality of his doomed marriage, Stowell hits exactly the right beats to gently infuse their still necessary and still functional relationship with heartbreak.
Stowell is an example of one of the many good things about Battle of the Sexes that I mentioned earlier, and there are other stand out performances. Elizabeth Shue is also very good as Riggs’ wife Priscilla; Natalie Morales and Sarah Silverman actually do get to make some jokes as Rosie Casals and Gladys Heldman, King’s teammate and manager. The movie is also engaging and well-paced. Despite my frustration with the overall framing and set-up, much of the writing is smart and funny.
The climactic match is also fun to watch after all that build up. The payoff following the win for Stone as an actress isn’t quite the same payoff as King does as a tennis player, of course, though she does have a post-game locker room scene that is one of the most affecting moments in the film, conveying the burden tied up in King’s victory and the loneliness tied up in her success. It’s a bittersweet moment, and a reminder that even as progress has been made, there is a long way still to go. Perhaps inadvertently, Battle of the Sexes reminds us that the same is true more than four decades later.