By Alan Mattli
There is a moment in the climactic sequence of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ new film where the cinema audience is presented with a series of shots showing the people lining the stands of the Houston Astrodome, come to see the much-publicised “Battle of the Sexes” – the 1973 tennis match between feminist ace Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and senior pro and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist” Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).
Women and men with bellbottom jeans and patterned vests hold up signs in support of “BJK”, older couples carry placards adorned with Riggs’ garish colours of choice – red and yellow –, young men wear t-shirts on which they proudly claim the title of “chauvinist pig”. In keeping with the staging of the whole sequence, which mimics the well-established format of televised tennis in all its static glory, it is both unclear and wholly beside the point whether Faris and Dayton, best known for directing the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine (2006), used actors or stock footage to create these establishing shots. What matters is that the scene credibly reflects the social reaction to the titular battle.
One of the things Battle of the Sexes makes clear over the course of its two-hour runtime is that Riggs, by most accounts, wasn’t the chauvinist he liked to present himself as. To him, his hyperbolic crusade against women’s tennis in the early 1970s was not primarily an expression of male frustration with women’s liberation and the fight against male privilege – though that certainly played into his efforts. Rather, the film argues, it was a tongue-in-cheek capitalist venture – a way to make a quick buck by picking up on the sociocultural hot topic du jour. Riggs being waited on by scantily-clad models, posing nude with just a phallic tennis racket covering his genitals, and entertaining journalists by playing tennis with a frying pan, then, is not “real” chauvinism – merely the performance of it.
And therein lies the rub, which Battle of the Sexes does commendably well to explore. Even if one gives Riggs the benefit of the doubt and writes off his over-the-top male posturing as a joke, that does not change the fact that thousands of men showed up to the Astrodome to cheer him on because of it. It does not change the fact that celebrities like Lloyd Bridges and Ricardo Montalban publicly rooted for him to resoundingly defeat “the little lady” Billie Jean King. And, perhaps most insidiously, it does not change the fact that sexists felt empowered enough to don cartoony t-shirts that identified them as such.
This is one of the elements which root this historical sports comedy-drama firmly in the present moment: to assume society has progressed enough to be able to light-heartedly perform the very things which emancipatory movements protest is to perpetuate oppression. In an age where opposition to things like rape jokes, the “ironic” invocation of racial and cultural stereotypes, and bemused comments about gender identities is routinely branded as anti-free speech, Battle of the Sexes cannily reminds its audience that there is no such thing as innocently laughing with the gatekeepers of the status quo. (Gatekeepers like Jack Kramer, elder statesman of tennis, played by Bill Pullman, whom King at one point identifies as “the real chauvinist” with an ideological grudge against the equal treatment of women.)
It’s this political edge, this deliberate, subtle acknowledgement of cultural forces that elevates the film above your standard inspirational sports crowd-pleaser. Even though it would have been nice to have King’s story written up by a woman, Simon Beaufoy’s punchy script does betray the sensibilities of someone to whom the Bechdel test, toxic masculinity, microaggressions, and intesectionality are more than buzzwords.
You see it in the opening argument between King, her friend and quasi-manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), and Kramer, whose dismissal of equal pay for female players prompts King, Heldman, and eight other players to boycott the Lawn Tennis Association and found their own tour. It’s a beautiful, abrasively funny tribute to feminist anger, which, more often than is generally acknowledged, has a big part to play in speeding along progress.
It is felt in the infectiously positive friendship among the so-called “Houston Nine” on their US tour, despite the fact that the cinemagoer does not really get to know most of the group members in any kind of depth. It feels like there is potential there for an entire movie divorced from the King v. Riggs match-up – a dialogue-driven road movie in the style of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) maybe, offering a feminist spin on Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016). (One can dream.)
The political urgency underpinning Faris and Dayton’s deceptively bubbly staging can (once again) be observed in the TV coverage of the climactic tennis match, where King’s friend and tour opponent Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) serves as co-commentator and has to contend with broadcasting legend Howard Cosell continuously applying an awkward hug-grab to her neck.
It even comes to the fore when Riggs is enthusiastically playing “The floor is lava” with his son and, apparently conditioned to be ashamed of such “unmanly” behaviour, feels the need to tell his wife Priscilla (the wonderfully nuanced Elisabeth Shue) that he was actually doing something else – a scene that manages to be in equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking.
And it plays out in King’s struggle to shoulder not only the sexism that is hurled at her from all sides on a daily basis but also, as she embarks on an affair with the hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), her gradual realisation that she is a lesbian. Like plenty of other topics, this could be explored in more harrowing detail – in fact, the film’s written epilogue does not mention that King was forced to come out of the closet in 1981, which cost her an estimated two million dollars in endorsements –, but Battle of the Sexes makes a conscious decision not to be that kind of movie.
As a result, it ultimately plays like the white sports version of Theodore Melfi’s marvellous Hidden Figures (2016). It offers easily likeable, well-rounded primary and secondary characters, invariably excellent acting from everyone involved – Emma Stone in particular makes an impression, handily trumping her doted-over La La Land performance –, a consistently engaging narrative, rousing moments of triumph, and political commentary that is both whip-smart and easily digestible. If these stories of strong, complex women taking on patriarchal structures is the new standard of medium-budget awards season fare, Hollywood’s future may yet look bright – especially if they start hiring more women to tell those stories.
★★★★ (out of five)
For more reviews (in German), visit facingthebittertruth.com.