January 4, 2019

Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Grade: 47/100

Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough

What it's about. A biopic on The Battle of The Sexes, a famous televised tennis exhibition match held in the Houston Astrodome in 1973. It pitted 55-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) against one of the nascent WTA Tour's best players, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone).

King, then as now, fights for equal pay and equal respect for women athletes. Her real adversary isn't Riggs, who is all bluff, but Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the condescending sexist pig in charge of the men's tour.

Riggs' long-suffering wife is played by Elisabeth Shue. King's long-suffering nice guy husband is played by Austin Stowell. King begins a drawn-out covert romance with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). In addition to players such as Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), the WTA Tour includes gay dressmaker Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) and chain-smoking boss lady Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

How others will see it. This politically correct film did manage two Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor (Carell) and Best Actress (Stone) in a comedy. (Battle of the Sexes is a comedy?) Critics were generally supportive, though the worldwide box office of 18M was disappointing, given the box office past of its leads.

At imdb.com, the movie has a decent 40K user votes and a good-plus user rating of 6.7 out of 10. Despite its women's liberation theme, women like the movie only slightly more than do men. The user reviews are generally mixed, with one calling it "not the great tennis breakthrough movie it might have been."

How I felt about it. There is much about this movie that I found annoying. Early into it, an announcer (from 1972) states that Billie Jean King is "the most successful woman tennis player of all time." This is simply incorrect: King wasn't even the best player of her generation.

Margaret Court may not have beaten Bobby Riggs, but she beat King 22 out of the 32 times they played, including 4 out of 5 slam finals. Overall, Court has 24 slams to King's 12, and 192 titles to King's 129. And she did that despite having three children (she retired once she learned she was pregnant for the fourth time).

Emma Stone is much more beautiful than King. Jack Kramer could not possibly have been as big a sexist jerk as this film's character assassination would have it. The 1973 WTA tour appears to consist of eight players, six of whom hardly speak. Chris Evert won 12 singles titles that year, almost twice as many as King, but is hardly mentioned, while Rosie Casals won two singles titles and is everywhere.

The movie also overlooks how the relationship between King and Barnett ended, with the latter suing the former in court for support. Barnett eventually attempted suicide, and became paralyzed from the waist down.

The film hardly discusses the ethics of accepting a cigarette manufacturer as tour sponsor. Or of cheating on your loyal husband with a hairdresser. Or of concealing a relationship because it would hurt your image, or endorsements. Or demanding equal pay when your tour earns less revenue.

Admittedly, none of these things reflect on Emma Stone, who does her best in a challenging role. Steve Carell has an easier time resurrecting the antics of Bobby Riggs. And the movie does a good job of evoking the early 1970s, down to Nixon, the clothes, airport television sets, and pay phones.

The film succeeds with Carell as Riggs. It fails in depicting the early days of the WTA Tour, and it turns King into a sweetheart instead of a competitor.