Going by the title, one would think the prime focus of the Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris directed film ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ would be the bizarre only-in-the-70s tennis match between top women’s player Billie Jean King and 55 year-old former tennis champ Bobby Riggs that caught the public’s imagination and became seen as a defining event in feminism of that era.
And yet over the course of the film it’s clear the filmmakers are more interested in other issues and the match itself almost feels like a subplot as opposed to the central narrative it’s treated as. It’s one of the reasons the film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve.
The film begins with King (Emma Stone) acclaimed as the best tennis player in the world and winning another Grand Slam title, but major challenges are on the horizon. Firstly, the blatant sexism of tennis authorities who almost gleefully pay women considerably less than men sees King spearhead the daunting challenge of launching a separate women’s tour. As well, a chance meeting with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) forces King to confront her lesbianism and the difficulties that entails for her marriage to Larry (Austin Stowell) and as a public figure in 1970s America.
With the pressures amounting rapidly, an offer from openly chauvinist long-retired tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to play a match as a literal battle of the sexes seems like the last thing that would interest her; but instead she accepts and it becomes one of the triumphant events in her life.
The only time BOTS really comes alive is when it covers the romantic relationship King has with Marilyn as the contradictions in her personal life become untenable. It would’ve been much easier for her due to her public profile, career and happy marriage to deny her true self, but the sheer magnetism she feels for Marilyn makes it impossible. BOTS effectively conveys how all the conventions one is supposed to adhere to in life can become irrelevant when you meet the right person and the romanticism that takes hold.
Apart from these segments, BOTS feels disappointingly rote and by-the-numbers. This is especially so for the plot involving the breakaway women’s tour which King led which could’ve been a fascinating topic but the treatment here is dispiritingly superficial, as if they just did a summary of the key points from a Wikipedia page on it.
Also, the film seems merely happy just to recreate the 1970s gaudiness of the actual ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ tennis match itself without even delving into any of the issues surrounding it. For example, we constantly see how seriously King takes her tennis and wants the sport to be taken serious (and women playing it as being respected). Yet she is taking part in a match that feels like something PT Barnum dreamt up (King arrives in on a float) that almost feels like its mocking tennis in more ways than one. Also, why did an event so corny and gaudy become one of the defining cultural events of its era? Alas, the film doesn’t event attempt to look into these issues.
The film is a bit more interesting when focussing on Bobby Riggs whom it portrays surprisingly sympathetically. They don’t really portray him as a genuine sexist pig, but as a rather sad middle-aged man playing up that angle knowing that will get the maximum attention and publicity from someone who desperately misses the adulation and spotlight he had in his tennis career.
In truth, it feels like the filmmakers really wanted to make a biopic of King but that would’ve been a harder sell than the more box office concept of making a film about an iconic 1970s event.
As it is, BOTS feels limited by the sheer clunkiness of its script. There’s an early scene where King (meeting sexist tennis authorities) just blurts out they’ll start their own women’s tour; it comes across as inauthentic and heavy-handed because the film wants a lazy, shorthand way of telling the audience what will happen in the film next. There’s also a family dinner scene with a bored Riggs where his son wonders how many peppercorns there are in the salt shaker. Knowing before watching the film that Riggs was a notorious gambler, I knew that this was put in solely so Riggs could react and eventually ask his son whether he wanted to bet on it with his disapproving wife looking on (an ongoing theme throughout the film). Again, it just felt like a script too heavy-handed and lazy in pushing the film’s themes.
I don’t want to be too negative on BOTS. It’s a relatively easy film to watch with a few nice scenes and Stone and Carrell are fine in their performances (although I doubt they’ll be awards-worthy). And from a technical perspective, the film looks convincing in the finale as you really believe it’s them playing the tennis match.
But overall, BOTS could’ve and should’ve been a better film than it is.