Battle of the Sexes

September 30, 2017
What we did in the 70s.. Billie Jean & Bobby
What we did in the 70s.. Billie Jean & Bobby

It’s strange to watch Battle of the Sexes from an Australian perspective, remembering how we barracked for Margaret Court in her rivalry with America’s Billie Jean King. Forty years on, Margaret Court looks like the most dreadful sourpuss – an outspoken homophobe, and allegedly an apologist for Apartheid. Billie Jean King has taken a very different path. In 1981 she was ‘outed’ as a lesbian and lost all her sponsorships and endorsements overnight. Today, at the age of 73, she is a prominent campaigner for gay rights.

The public images of these two legendary athletes could hardly be more different: Court has become a stern minister of religion, while King is now more self-confident and charismatic than in her playing days.

None of this is shown in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes, which is an immaculate time capsule of the early 1970s. (When was the last time you heard Tommy James and the Shondells singing Crimson and Clover?) Nevertheless, in telling the story of the infamous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the directors have taken every opportunity to insert messages of supreme relevance to the present-day.

They may have tried a little too hard in this respect, but there’s no denying the contemporaneity of topics such as homophobia, equal rights for women, even the sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies. What Dayton and Faris have produced is a politically correct feel-good movie, with a very slick script by Simon Beaufoy that makes us feel smug at just the right moments, although Margaret Court might see it differently.

The movie tells the story of Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old former tennis champion and lifelong hustler, who claims he can beat the greatest female players of the day. Riggs initially challenges King who turns him down, but Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) accepts. In a match that became known as ‘the Mother’s Day Massacre’, Riggs blows Court away in straight sets and declares himself “the number one women’s player in the world.”

It’s this humiliation for women’s tennis and women’s rights that prompts King to revisit Riggs’s challenge, leading to the cartoonish spectacle of “the battle of the sexes” held at Houston’s Astrodome in 1973.

That’s the plot, but for four-fifths of the film we follow the back-stories of King and Riggs, played with great aplomb by Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Not only does Carell look like Riggs, he exudes loud-mouthed gamesmanship without ever sacrificing our sympathies.

Emma Stone is an unlikely candidate to play Billie Jean King, but it’s good to see her in a role that tests her acting abilities, as well as her backhand. She shows us a bright, charismatic woman who did some of her best work away from the court. In this film King is the leader of an historic players’ revolt that took place when tournament organiser, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) offered male competitors eight times more prize money than their female counterparts.

Along with agent, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and player, Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), she spearheads a female competition – the Virginia Slims – with Philip Morris providing sponsorship and all the fags the girls can smoke. While this is happening, Billie Jean is also falling in love with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

The lesbian love theme occupies almost as much time as the tennis, like Brokeback Mountain restaged at the US Open. The worst of it for King is having to break the news to her devoted husband, Larry (Austin Stowell). It would be left to Marilyn to tell the rest of the world after the relationship ended acrimoniously. During the time span of this film it’s all hearts and flowers.

As for Bobby Riggs, it’s clear from the beginning that this “male chauvinist pig” is one big act intended to titillate the media. An inveterate gambler who used to bet on his own matches, we meet Riggs in middle-aged decline, working in an office owned by his wife’s father, feeling bored and restless. Unhappy with the role of a kept man he has almost managed to scuttle his own marriage. Like most gamblers he’s longing for one final adventure that will set him up, but it’s the attention he craves more than the cash.

When King confronts Jack Kramer late in the film she says: “Bobby’s a clown. With you it’s different. It’s for real.” She’s speaking truth to power and making the most basic observation about Riggs and his antics.

Looking back, it’s amazing how much attitudes have changed since the supposedly liberated 70s. Figures like Kramer seem positively medieval, cigarettes inspire righteous horror, and the love that dared not speak its name now shouts it loudly from the rooftops. To see this film is to feel a redoubled sense of the absurdity of the same-sex marriage debate. In love as in sport the world moves on, and those who refuse to move with it are the ones who will end up in the closet.

Battle of the Sexes
Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Natalie Morales, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Stowell, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Sarah Silverman, Jessica McNamee
UK/USA, rated PG, 121 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 September, 2017