Backwards And In High Heels
As a straight, white dude, I know I’ve got a lot to answer for. People that look a fair piece like yours truly have dropped atomic bombs, invaded the wrong countries, and generally behaved idiotically at best and abominably at worst. The shorter way to put it? Men kinda suck sometimes.
That’s an entirely unsurprising concept, especially when viewed through the prism of the 2016 presidential election. For the briefest of moments, let’s zoom in and look at the debates. On the one hand, you had Hillary Clinton, a candidate who undeniably did her homework. She showed up and was able to effortlessly rattle off information about all manner of public policy. On the other hand, you had Donald Trump, a candidate who had, let’s say a bit more of a freewheeling approach. He didn’t sweat little things like details, he just let the force of his personality do the work.
This is tough, but go with me on this for a moment. Put aside your feelings about these two, their history, their politics, and consider this. The debates were essentially between a highly prepared woman and a man who was half-assing it. I would imagine that for most if not all women watching, this may have felt somewhat familiar. I’ll elaborate.
You’re in a professional setting, for example, trying to get a job or going for a promotion. You’re in a social setting, making a point about something. Whatever that thing is, you’ve done your homework and you’re up against some guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and isn’t taking things as seriously as you are. It’s a tale as old as time, the old story of the wave of your preparation crashing against the seemingly unbreakable cliffs of masculine cluelessness.* Billie Jean King knew a thing or two about that when she went up against Bobby Riggs in a famous 1973 tennis match. Battle of the Sexes is about those events. It gets the right points across but lacks power.
We meet King (Emma Stone) in 1973, earning an impressive reputation for herself as a professional tennis player. She’s smart, focused, and going places, and her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) is behind her. Problem is, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the cartoonishly smarmy head of the Tennis Association, organizes a tournament. The male winner gets $12,000, whereas the female winner only gets a mere $1,500. King points out that the men aren’t playing 8 times as much tennis as the women, so perhaps Kramer could see his way towards providing equal pay. Being a product of American masculinity, Kramer naturally refuses.
King walks, and along with nearly every other significant female tennis player, she forms a female tennis tour sponsored by Virginia Slims. Yes, seriously. The tour is a big deal, attracting serious media attention. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is one of those who takes an interest. He’s 55, a top-ranked tennis player in the 1940’s, and a gambling addict in the 1970’s. His drive has vanished, and he bets on virtually anything. His wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue, utterly wasted) isn’t thrilled by the behavior of her hustler husband. But Bobby has an idea. He publicly announces that he can beat any woman in the world at tennis. Why? Because he’s a man, you silly goose!
Bobby challenges King. Naturally, she refuses, looking at the whole enterprise as a ridiculous sideshow. That might have been the end of that, if not for King losing a match to Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), a driven player in her own right. Bobby challenges Court. Court accepts, and Bobby proceeds to wipe the floor with her. Bobby is back in the spotlight, obnoxiously mocking women in tennis and crowing over his perceived superiority.
The eyes of the nation turn towards King, particularly considering that she’s given an offer she can’t refuse. The plan is, King will play Bobby at the Houston Astrodome. The game will be nationally televised on prime-time** TV, and the winner receives a prize of $100,000. In “preparation” for the big event, Bobby comports himself with all the dignity you’d expect, such as posing nude with a strategically placed tennis racket and dressing as Little Bo Peep. You would expect King to beat Bobby like a rented mule, only she’s a little distracted. She’s fallen hard for the team hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). This is a problem since the affair could torpedo her career and wreck the chances of sponsorship for the tour. Plus, King has become an icon for women’s liberation. A loss could send a devastating message.
Battle of the Sexes is obviously a film of the moment. The problem is, it’s only an okay film of the moment. Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, they immerse us in the feel of 1970’s America. We’re treated to period-appropriate music, television, and style. There are even frilled tuxedos, you guys! They have brought us back to a time where the idea of toxic masculinity would have been laughable, and when male chauvinism was a widespread point of view.
Faris and Dayton excel when it comes to the feel of the piece and the small character moments. While I was not a fan of their debut film Little Miss Sunshine, I have to give them props for noticing the details and using them to accentuate character. A DJ interviews King and other members of the tour, asking them how they balance a home life with tennis and pointing out for the listeners that one of them is single. The women laugh good-naturedly at this nonsense. What else can they do? We see numerous moments, large and small, of the everyday sexism they constantly have to fight. It rings true, and it reminds us that in many ways, things haven’t changed much.
However, as solid as the character aspects are, Faris and Dayton drop the fuzzy yellow ball when it comes to the tennis scenes themselves. Understand that I’m hilariously ignorant about all aspects of the sport, but we’re constantly told how King is the best female player in America. Why? What specifically is she doing that makes her a champion? We barely find out, and when we do see tennis in action, it’s in long shots. Not only are we unsure if it’s really Stone and Carell out there on the court, but Faris and Dayton remove us from the action and lose a lot of the energy and momentum.
The script by Simon Beaufoy is fine, though it frequently feels lazy and unformed. Talented actors like Elizabeth Shue and Bill Pullman are stuck playing one-dimensional characters like the Nagging Wife and the Arrogant Millionaire. Even strong performers like Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming are saddled with clunky and forced dialogue. If that’s not illegal, it by God should be. Beaufoy never quite humanizes Bobby Riggs as a character. We see him playing with his young son and trying to repair his marriage when he’s not acting like a jackass in public. But does he believe any of what he’s saying? Is it all just another way for him to get paid? While he’s obviously playing a character, we never get into Riggs’ head the same way we understand King.
If you’ve seen the trailers for this film, you might be led to believe that the film is a two-hander between Emma Stone and Steve Carell. It isn’t, and the film’s protagonist is unquestionably Billie Jean King. With an actor as smart and intuitive as Emma Stone, that’s okay. Her Billie Jean is tough and competitive, and even when her character stumbles due to the massive pressure she’s under, Stone never forgets to let us in. Steve Carell has come a long way from yelling, “I LOVE LAMP” in Anchorman, and he’s become a fascinating and consistent character actor. For his Bobby Riggs, everything is a hustle, and he plays the role as a con artist who knows you don’t quite buy his B.S. but are charmed by him regardless.
I’m torn when it comes to Battle of the Sexes. Should you undertake the perilous and expensive trek to your local theater and make the commitment to add to its box office? Ah…I don’t think this is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Also, for a story that advertises a titanic tussle between the genders, it too often pulls its punches. For a story that’s just as depressingly relevant in 2017*** as it was in 1973, this film should be a lot more than simply pleasant.
*Somewhere out there, some guy is thinking, “Wait a minute! I’m not like that! #notallmen!” To that guy, I’ll offer a gentle reminder. It’s not always about you, so maybe take a step back for ten seconds.
**Millennials, ask your parents to explain prime-time television to you.
***Casual sexism in the world of tennis is alive and well, as you can read about here.