Steve Carell and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes.
Tennis is really, for some mystifying reason, having a moment right now; there were no less than three features about tennis premiering at TIFF last month. As one of the most underrepresented sports on the silver screen, tennis has not always had a particularly easy go of it. I think much of it has to do with the impersonal nature of the sport – tennis is basically boxing with no one touching, and the traditional way tennis has been shot on TV consists of aerial shots completely lacking in immediacy. Tennis is a duel with both parties as far from each other as possible, not to mention a tony sport for the moneyed where not much usually hangs in the balance. All of these things make tennis somewhat uncinematic, so it’s a good thing that there’s a lot more going on in Battle of the Sexes than simple tennis.
Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was on top of the tennis game once upon a time. Now past retirement age, he’s stuck fiddling about in an unfulfilling office job that his wife (Elisabeth Shue) has found for him. Riggs cooks up a plan to challenge the current ladies’ champion, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), to a so-called “Battle of the Sexes”.
King originally turns Riggs’s showy challenge down, but eventually changes her mind when Riggs beats her biggest competitor, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). The match is highly publicized as the clownish Riggs takes every opportunity to humiliate his opponent and spew ridiculous misogynist rhetoric backed by his old pal Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a former player turned executive who makes no qualms about his belief that women are inferior. This pressure is quadrupled by King’s personal life, which sees her drifting away from her supportive husband Larry (Austin Stowell) as she discovers she may actually be attracted to women – or at least to her hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).
Obviously, it’s not as if this kind of overt misogyny and alpha dickwagging has gone by the wayside, but the most striking thing about Battle of the Sexes is how plainly and chortlingly open the old white men gatekeepers of the tennis world were about it all. It’s uncomfortable to watch Howard Cosell treat Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), a professional tennis player handpicked by King to give commentary on the big match, as if she were a toddler improvising a talent show. It’s uncomfortable to watch Pullman’s character constantly pull shit-eating grins while saying the dumbest things on live television. It’s uncomfortable to think that this stuff still goes on, even if it’s (mostly) behind closed doors. The best thing about Battle of the Sexes is how overtly and unapologetically it covers this kind of stuff.
The film suggests that Riggs didn’t fully believe everything that he was espousing – that he wasn’t so much a misogynist as an ageing guy on the verge of being washed up who saw in the clownish grandstanding a way to stay relevant. Some might say that it’s too much of an olive branch that the filmmakers are extending here – Riggs certainly seems like he’s putting on much of his behaviour (like dressing up like Little Bo Peep and playing a match on a field filled with actual, live sheep), but he’s ultimately not really depicted as being the villain.
Battle of the Sexes acquits itself better with the requisite clichés of the period biopic partially because it splits the point of view between the two tennis players; they therefore don’t need to follow the whole tragic three-act up-and-down that movies like this usually carve out of real life. It helps that directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) bring a surprising amount of artfulness and dialled-down period grit to the thing. A lot of Battle of the Sexes is shot in a way that draws on journalism from the period – news pieces and documentary filmmaking that give the film an organic, lived-in feel. (Even the 1970s music cues are not as blindingly obvious as they’ve been in other recent period films.) While stopping well short of employing any kind of mockumentary technique, it does have a fly-on-the-wall quality that elevates it beyond the base-level, ultra-shiny biopic.
What does harm Battle of the Sexes is that it’s telling at least two stories in the time traditionally reserved for one. The film is as much about King discovering her own sexuality, and not only does it get short shrift, it reserves the corniest and most on-the-nose moments for that. It’s enough of a story that it could probably comfortably be its own movie, but it’s also a big enough part of who King was that you can’t really leave it out. It’s not that the film is necessarily even tone-deaf in the way you’d expect, it’s just so busy that it shoehorns in a gay fashion designer (Alan Cumming) to kind of hang out on the edge of the frame and sort of condense the LGBTQ elements of the story in well-placed one-liners.
In truth, a movie like Battle of the Sexes cannot be completely terrible or completely transcendent. Part of the reason that biopics adhere to a particular recipe so closely is that it more or less works. In that sense, Battle of the Sexes holds few surprises. It’s a rousing true-life drama with strong performances all around; Stone in particular manages to transcend even the corniest and most schematic aspects of the role. It’s also fully clownable in the way it approaches aspects of its story and in the way it ticks Important Historical Moment clichés. You can’t really have one without the other, in a way – that’s just the way these things go. ■
Battles of the Sexes opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 29. Watch the trailer here: