My second TIFF film and the second that tackled (sort of) LGBTQ issues and this time tacked on women’s issues to round out the package. Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine) and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine), aims to take on the dreaded institution of patriarchy and goes in with all good intention, but in my books falls a little short. Make no mistake, it is an entertaining film though I was hoping for a little more. A little more bite to replace the many laughs to be found.
The tennis match between 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs divided a nation. Much like politics does now in the United States, the Battle of the Sexes tennis match had women on one side and men on the other. Patriarchy was not going to relinquish any of its dominance, even in the sports arena.
Life after sports is not an easy one for former professional athletes. That is doubly true of someone like Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell – from television’s The Office). Riggs was a man-child who was a compulsive gambler. Not being in the spotlight after his retirement from tennis was not going well. He found himself a middle aged man sitting at a desk doing nothing all day long and continuously disappointing his wealthy wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue – Leaving Las Vegas, The Karate Kid). While he continues to gamble despite promising his wife he isn’t. After seeing how much tennis players are now making an idea comes to Bobby. An idea that will change the course of tennis.
Female world number one tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone – La La Land, Birdman) is no wilting flower. She butts heads against the man at the head of United States tennis (Bill Pullman – While You Were Sleeping, Independence Day) and when he won’t back down forms, with her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman – A Million Ways to Die in the West, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), the Women’s Tennis Association. With other female tennis players they begin their own tour sponsored by Virginia Slims.
With all this going on Billie Jean, who is married to Larry King (Austin Stowell – Whiplash, Bridge of Spies), meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough – Oblivion, Nocturnal Animals), a woman who would change everything for the tennis star. It was the first time Billie Jean would admit her attraction to women. As it is 1973 being a public lesbian was not an option for Billie Jean if she wanted to remain a professional tennis player. Their relationship had to be kept a secret or her career would be destroyed. Especially from the likes of fellow player, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee – The Vow, The Loved Ones).
When the always scheming Bobby Riggs comes to Billie Jean with the idea of them playing a tennis match with the winner taking $100,000, she initially refuses. After he takes on and beats Margaret Court, Billie Jean feels she has no choice but to accept his challenge. The Battle of the Sexes on court is to happen with much on the line on both sides.
In the end this is a character driven piece. A study of two of the more interesting people to ever have picked up a tennis racket. Billie Jean King was a pioneer and activist while Bobby Riggs was an entertainer. Dayton and Faris tell their tale in the genre of crowd pleaser. Everything is done to make this a film to root for. To make these two characters easily likeable ones. Even Riggs, who played the part of the chauvinist pig. The scenes with his wife and son are obviously set up to make him likeable. The sexist pig becomes the harmless loser here. You even find yourself feeling sorry for him. He is softened just as the crux of the story is in order to make things more palatable.
While Billie Jean King was trying to prove that female tennis players should earn the same money as their male counterparts, she was also discovering the truth of her own sexuality. Emma Stone once again shows her talent by ably depicting Billie Jean’s grit, determination and at the same time, awkwardness, especially socially. Playing her true romantic partner, Andrea Riseborough is great at fleshing out a character who could have just been “the girlfriend”.
As for the Battle of the Sexes it continues today. Nothing has been solved. Female tennis players (and all women, actually) have to still fight to be seen as equals. The culture of sexism continues. It is here that a “better” film lies. A film that would on a deeper level investigate the idea of power and the reluctance to let it go. It is a film that could have hit much harder.