Battle of the Sexes (2017)

The website IMDb lists movies under their title and year of release with a second line for playing time, rating classification and genre.

The last mentioned has, for example, Maudie (2016): “biography, drama, romance”; Dunkirk (2017): “action, drama, history”.

These are reasonable words to pigeon hole a brief overview of these films for the reader. For The Battle of the Sexes (2017) the description reads: “biography, comedy, sport”.

With Maudie and Dunkirk the three words married into a cohesive whole to describe them but with Battle of the Sexes they provide a confusion. The problem with this film is that it does not know whether it should be a biography, a comedy or a sports movie.

For that I must blame the writer Simon Beaufoy who wrote The Full Monty (1997) and the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

Beaufoy has created a story around a most suitable subject, the tennis great, Billie-Jean King (Emma Stone). The woman is a legend in her sport but has an equally significant background as a crusader for equal rights for women and a trailblazer for sports heroes declaring themselves openly gay. Her romantic affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), provides an important sidelight to King’s own ‘battle’ to love the one you want while pursuing the professional struggle of being a sports champion and a crusader for equal rights.

WAS THIS COMEDY? BILLIE-JEAN KING (EMMA STONE) AND BOBBY RIGGS (STEVE CARELL)

However, it is crucial to the storyline of Battle of the Sexes that Ms King did not come out until 1981 because she knew it would damage her breakthrough move to challenge for equal prize money for men and women in her sport.

The “comedy” is introduced in the form of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion who challenges Ms King to a $100,000 match to prove men are far superior to women. Bobby’s antics and the narrow-minded male opinions of the era (1970s) are meant to be funny. They fail, not because of Carell’s performance, but because the “women in the kitchen” comments have become so trite. Perhaps I’m just embarrassed because I lived through this and the film is portraying a message to much younger viewers that what is now has not always been?

But this is just an experienced person talking. It seems younger people don’t know about these things.

In a combined interview on Entertainment, Austin Lowell who plays King’s husband Larry said: 

“I didn’t know about the Battle of the Sexes in particular but I knew who Billie-Jean King was” 

and Jessica McNamee who plays Australian tennis legend Margaret Court) said:

“I couldn’t believe I didn’t know anything about this story”.

With age comes knowledge I suppose. Even more reason for the producers to tell this story right.

The “sports” is shown through the match itself, played at the Houston Astrodome in September 1973, four months after Riggs beat Court in a similar but not so extravagant event. Indeed it is estimated the Riggs-King match was watched by 90 million worldwide.

While well done and using the original television commentary of ABC legend Howard Cosell and King doubles partner Rosie Casals to great effect, the sports part of the description also fell a bit flat.

Here is a film trying to do too much with too little material or not digging deep enough to provide entertainment and understanding for the viewer. Chronology was not given enough importance. For example, King and women players had already achieved parity of payment by 1972, a year before King and Riggs faced off.

Traditionally movies seem to need a villain. In this case it is Jack Kramer, a former champion player and powerful figure in world tennis.

What Battle of the Sexes doesn’t say is that the same year as  the Riggs-King match, Kramer as Executive Director of the ATP (1972-75) helped lead the 1973 Wimbledon boycott that saw 79 players withdraw from competing, including 13 of the top 16 seeds. Jack, like Billie-Jean, was also a crusader of sorts and his depiction as a stuff shirt in an exclusive New York gentleman’s club is probably a bit wide of the mark.

However, he was a voice of his times and men of that era (perhaps of all eras, just getting smaller in number?) felt women’s sports undeserving of equal pay for its participants. As an adult lifetime despiser of television tennis and most-of-lifetime lover of most sports, I leave the reader to their own conclusions there. 

Was it a story worth telling? Apparently, because the young actors in the film didn’t know the Riggs-King match existed, so it is probable that many people under 50 don’t know the story either.

Could it have been told in a semi-documentary style? Preferably, but I feel the producers wanted to re-create the 1970s, a garish, colourful period of fashion and history where the norms of the early 1960s were beginning to break down further.

That they have done so in a hotchpotch style is a bit disappointing. Rather like my effort here. I feel I have replicated the creators of Battle of the Sexes by writing a critique that tries to go into too many areas without enough explanation. C’est la vie.

FOOTNOTES:

Margaret Court won 62 combined major championship events (singles, doubles, mixed doubles). Martina Navratilova won 59 and Billie-Jean King 39.

In 1990 Life magazine named its “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century”. Four athletes were included: Baseball’s Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson (the first black player in pro baseball);  boxer Muhammad Ali and Billie-Jean King.

https://www.tennisfame.com/hall-of-famers/inductees/jack-kramer/

https://www.tennisfame.com/hall-of-famers/inductees/billie-jean-king/

Score: 1.5

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