I’m “biast” (con): not a sports fan at all
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
That saying about those not remembering the past being condemned to repeat it? Of course it’s true… but sometimes it’s not an accident that the past gets forgotten. Sometimes the squashing of history — and the continuation of history into the present — is deliberate. Feminists know this: Women are constantly having to reinvent feminism, refight the same battles, because they don’t stay won. A brief moment of small triumph very quickly gets drowned out by major cultural pushback; women may savor victory only long enough for it to be washed away. There’s that other saying: Two steps forward, one step back. With feminism, it’s more like: Half a baby step forward, a dozen steps back.
That’s how it’s possible that the 1973 “battle of the sexes” tennis match, meant to settle the question of whether female athletes were the equals of their male counterparts, did no such thing. Does anyone who was too young to have watched or not yet alive at the time even know about it? (I’d love to hear that I’m wrong about this.) The match was played at the Houston Astrodome and drew 90 million viewers around the world at a time when live global TV was only in its infancy. It was an enormous cultural event that transcended the niche of sports. And yet it seems to have been all but forgotten in the popular consciousness. Certainly the “question” of women’s athletic prowess continues to be posed, though only so that it may be pooh-poohed, most recently in the “debate” over whether Serena Williams is the best tennis player ever or merely the best female tennis player. (Are women ever allowed to be considered the best of anything? Or must our accomplishments always be qualifed as lesser?) Male tennis legend John McEnroe appears to be itching now for a rerun of the 1973 match with Williams on the other side of the net.
So, as usual, there’s a necessity to a movie like Battle of the Sexes, an urgency to be seen, that goes beyond its sheer entertainment value, which is also enormous. It doesn’t feel like the essential history lesson that it is, though would that it didn’t make me rather depressed to see how little has really changed in 44 years. Somehow, the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — they of the not-good Ruby Sparks and the brilliant Little Miss Sunshine — has captured the amusement value of retro kitsch without their film being actually kitschy (perhaps because its subject matter sadly feels so au courant). Somehow they’ve made a film that quietly debunks the spurious notion that feminism can’t be fun by itself being fun, full of cheery bashes at outrageous sexism and an aura of sporting (in all senses of the word) can-do spirit.
“I’m gonna put the show back in chauvinism,” the larger-than-life Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell: The Big Short, Freeheld) — 55 years old and a former champion — announces at a televised press conference once Billie Jean King (Emma Stone: La La Land, Aloha) — the 29-year-old number-one-ranked woman in the world — has finally accepted his challenge to play him in an exhibition match. Everyone laughs, including King. But while he may be entertaining, he’s an entertaining asshole, entirely representative of attitudes she has been battling for years. She is under no illusions about how vital it is for her to win this game. To lose would give fuel to those who believe women inferior to men. To lose would be to transform a half-baby step forward into a hundred steps back.
But the actual Battle comes at the end of the film. The movie opens with King — Stone is wonderful in the role, all quiet determination and ambition — pulling out of the tennis federation run by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman: Independence Day: Resurgence, American Ultra) over his refusal to pay the women players the same prize money the men receive: the women, after all, sell as many tickets as the men do. But he’ll have none of it: he’s the kind of man who dismisses women with statements that start with “The thing about women is…” and end with some nugget of awful stereotyped nonsense, all delivered with suave “reasonable” gentlemanliness. The likes of Kramer, a respected authority figure, are the real problems, the most insidious misogynists, not a clown like Riggs. (Carell is an absolute hoot in the role. Ghastly, but a hoot nevertheless.) King doesn’t just pull out of Kramer’s organization: she leads other women players in boycotting his tourneys and setting up their own league, with the help of World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (a hilarious Sarah Silverman: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Wreck-It Ralph), who deals with the business end.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Everest, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) finds a lot of sly humor in how the women’s tournament grows and succeeds, stuff that wouldn’t have caused anyone at the time to bat an eye but seems amusingly ironic today, such as the fact that it’s tobacco company Philip Morris sponsoring what is billed as “the Virginia Slims* Tour”; Heldman, though, does get some wry mileage out of the disparity between athleticism and smoking cigarettes. The always delightful Alan Cumming (Strange Magic, The Smurfs 2) as former player turned fashion designer Ted Tinling represents a loosening up of the on-court etiquette with his colorful dresses for King and her fellow players to wear while competing; no more boring whites. And our eye today cannot help but pick out the appalling condescension and casual abuse that was misogyny passing unnoticed in 1973, as how Battle of the Sexes commentator Howard Cosell — a legend of sports journalism and another authority figure — has no compunction about delivering his televised blow-by-blow with his arm draped possessively around the shoulders of his cocommentator, King colleague and fellow tennis player Rosemary Casals (Natalie Morales [Going the Distance, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps], very convincingly CGI’ed into the original Cosell footage). It’s so… ugh. (One interesting positive change in the intervening years: the filmmakers have had to age up Carell to play Riggs, even though the actor is the same age the player was back then. Fifty-five today is younger than it was 44 years ago.)
Perhaps the more trenchant history lesson, though, that Battle of the Sexes has to offer is this one: behind every victory, even a shortlived one, is another campaign for dignity and respect waiting to be started. Battle does a lovely job of depicting the absolute necessity of King keeping her homosexuality a secret. She was married at the time of the Battle, to Larry (Austin Stowell: Colossal, Bridge of Spies), who at first seems like a Ken-doll beard for her, but we come to see that there is real affection and friendship between them. He is genuinely hurt when his wife takes up with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough: Mindhorn, Birdman), a hairdresser who — wow! — gave King that famous 70s “Billie Jean” hairstyle. This is as much a tender, gentle romance between the two women as it is a story about a push for fairness in professional sports across gender lines. But that relationship had to be conducted outside the public eye, lest suggestions of “licentiousness, immorality, and sin,” as a disapproving player on the women’s tour deems King’s sexuality, taint the ongoing fight for equal pay and equal esteem. Battle of the Sexes is a bittersweet reminder that not all battles can be fought at once. And that that other battle is still ongoing, too.
*Oh, my babies, you may not know this since cigarettes are not advertised like they used to be, but Virginia Slims cigarettes were (still are) a brand directed at women, the marketing of which harnessed notions of female liberation but also, ironically, strict adherence to beauty standards as selling tools.