A female tennis star wrestles with the patriarchy and her own sexuality in the gyno-centric sports dramedy Battle of the Sexes (2017), written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton. A retelling of the most-watched tennis match of all time, between ex-champion Bobby Riggs and top female player Billie Jean King, seemed promising, but something misfired along the way. It was partly billed as a comedy, and features both Sarah Silverman and Steve Carell, but ends up only being mildly amusing.
It’s the early 1970s. Tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) about gross inequality in tennis prize money between male and female players. In outrage, they storm off to found their own women’s tennis association. Meanwhile, ex-tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has hit a new low as his gambling addiction threatens to tear apart his family.
As her new league takes off, Billie Jean King’s behavior threatens her marriage as well, when she meets hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and discovers she is attracted to women. This affair seems to have little effect on her life, however, when her cuckolded husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), shrugs it off and continues to faithfully dote on her.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs comes up with a way to exploit controversy over the women’s lib movement to make money and challenges top female tennis players to an exhibition bout. He handily defeats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is portrayed as somehow flawed and weakened by her loving devotion to her husband and child. Billie Jean King finally accepts the challenge and ends up humiliating Riggs in a match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”
Most sports films feature an underdog overcoming adversity to win the final match, and elements of this film reminded me of the greatest underdog story of all time, Rocky (1976). Bobby Riggs’ antics mirrored that of Apollo Creed, who also learned a lesson in humility in the finale. Billie Jean King, however, was no underdog. She was at the height of her career, among the top female tennis players in the world, and successfully launched her own all-female tennis league.
By the time the climactic match arrived, I was more relieved the film was finally over than I was to find out who won. There was really nothing at stake in a match that was essentially a meaningless promotional stunt. Billie Jean King easily defeated Bobby Riggs. In the end, she showed a female tennis player at the top of her game could beat a 55-year-old retiree.
In my opinion, the story of how Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and struggled with her sexuality is much more interesting than the match with Bobby Riggs. Unfortunately, that was the marketing hook the filmmakers thought would draw viewers to this film, but ends up feeling secondary to the main drama.
The biggest problem with Battle of the Sexes was that it feigned interest in telling both sides of the story but was really about Billie Jean King. The fact real-life Billie Jean King consulted on the movie, while Riggs is no longer around to defend himself, compounded the problem. What resulted was King’s triumphant story as seen through her eyes, which would have been fine if it was shot and advertised that way. Instead, we get a half-hearted attempt to develop Riggs’ character and give him a story arch.
Overall, Battle of the Sexes lacked a clear focus. If the movie is about King’s struggle, make it about that. If it’s about the match between King and Riggs, make it about that. Either one of those movies would have been more entertaining than this convoluted and drawn out snoozefest.