The (in)famous “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is perfect fodder for a modern-day biopic. Given the issues the match represents – sexism vs feminism, the fight for equal pay for female players – it can legitimately argue for contemporary relevance, but it’s just silly enough to avoid the over-seriousness that far too many biographical films fall victim to.
Written by Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy and directed by Little Miss Sunshine pair Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes makes a set of clever choices. However, for every great shot that goes wizzing over the net, there’s an unforced error to follow.
One of the smartest decisions of the screenplay is the choice to avoid setting up Riggs (Steve Carell) as the antagonist. He’s an easy mark – a flamboyant gambling addict who spends the lead up to the match relishing in his self-appointed role as a “male chauvinist pig.” A weaker screenplay would’ve played up Riggs’ oversized sexism and firmly established King as our heroine. Instead, Beaufoy’s script establishes King and Riggs as joint protagonists (though Billie Jean, as played by Emma Stone, gets the lion’s share of the spotlight), relegating the role of real villain(s) to two characters: commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and tennis champ Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).
I don’t know much about the real-life Jack Kramer, but he’s depicted here as the apotheosis of ingrained industry sexism, advocating against equal pay for women and snidely dismissing King’s talents as a tennis player due to her “lack of resolve.” Accurate or not, he’s an entirely believable stand-in for ‘polite’ sexism of the day and today. Court, meanwhile, is depicted with admirable accuracy (if you’ve been following Australian politics this year) as a moralistic shrew, disapproving of King’s ‘sinful’ affair with lesbian lover Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough; excellent). Court’s recent statements to the press have helped ensure her historical legacy will be intolerance rather than her on-court talent, and it’s refreshing to see a biopic like this reinforce that.
This is all well and good, but a truly great film would have reminded us that the intolerance King encounters – as a woman, as a successful woman, as a queer woman – has hardly been left behind in 1973. That’s reinforced by the ongoing battle for equal women’s pay across countless sports, and you only need look at the discourse around Australia’s same sex marriage “debate” to see that homophobia has hardly been left in the rear-view. For a while, it seems like Battle of the Sexes gets that. But late in the piece – with a groaner of an Alan Cumming line – it slides into eye-rolling “aren’t we glad we’re not like that any more” mode, entirely undercutting what should have been its underlying argument.
I’m similarly mixed on Linus Sandgren’s cinematography. Shooting on 35mm, there are moments that the film captures the feel of the era and the interiority of its characters. In particular, the courtship between Billie Jean and Marilyn are shot with an intoxicating proximity that brilliantly evokes the feeling you get when you form an unexpected chemistry with someone. But just as often, Sandgren relies on a ‘naturalistic’ shaky cam and poorly-focused, softly-lensed shots that feel amateurish rather than expressive.
As cleverly as much of Battle of the Sexes is constructed, its biggest failing for me is that it’s just … not especially entertaining. It’s competent without being thrilling. Despite casting a bevy of talented comedic actors – Carell, of course, but also Fred Armisen and Chris Parnell and Sarah Silverman and Tom Kenny – it’s rarely funny. It feels like it’s trying! There’s a joyfully silly montage of Riggs’ media stunts set to George Harrison, for instance. But I laughed maybe once.
Dayton and Faris also can’t seem to find a way to make tennis entertaining. I’m not the biggest tennis fan (I haven’t watched a complete match in years), but it says something that the tennis matches here are less entertaining than any game I can remember watching on TV. The outcome of every match feels preordained; that’s in part because of Nicholas Britell’s overly-intrusive score, but also because of the screenplay’s structure. Each match shown in the film is inextricably linked to the emotional arc of its characters, particularly Billie Jean. From a storytelling point of view, that makes sense, but it inadvertently reinforces Jack Kramer’s argument that women players are “overly emotional” by linking King’s results to the presence or absence of her girlfriend.
At the end of the day, Battle of the Sexes is – much like the match itself – worth watching but nonetheless a bit of a disappointment when it comes to the entertainment factor. A story certainly worth telling, but one that could’ve been told better.
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