On a road trip through Austin a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to see The Battle of the Sexes at an Alamo Drafthouse with some friends. While we were visiting them, we talked a lot about popularity versus quality. My Austinite friend, who shall remain unnamed lest you choose to judge him for what I am about to tell you, is a contrarian. If something is popular, he is 90% guaranteed not to like it, or at least to be very skeptical of it. I’ll give him some credit here; there are popular things that he likes. However, he may be ashamed of that.
At any rate, while I cannot call myself a contrarian, I think he has a worthy perspective. People as a whole are often wrong about things. How else do we explain Imagine Dragons? This is especially true if you have a low view of human nature. I imagine that if John Calvin lived in the Age of Netflix, he too would be a contrarian. But I like a lot of popular things, and if we believe in the imago dei, we have to accept that sometimes people get things right. How else do we explain Beyoncé?
This is really the only framework within which to understand the fact that The Battle of the Sexes exists as a movie. The actual Battle of the Sexes was a tennis match between washed up Grand Slam winner, Bobby Riggs, and the best player in women’s tennis at the time, Billie Jean King, who made huge strides for equal pay in the tennis world and has furthered AIDS activism around the globe. The Battle of the Sexes was like a circus; King entered on a litter carried by oiled-up male models, and Riggs was accompanied by scantily clad women. Of all the ways to pay respect and homage to the life of an American pioneer like Billie Jean King, they focus on one of the most gimmicky sporting events of all time?
The most obvious explanation for this is the fact that 90 million people watched the event on television worldwide. It was a sideshow, but an extremely popular sideshow. This means we have to remember it in the history books, but do we need a movie about it? In the movie, the filming of the match itself is pretty exciting. But I’m not convinced the Battle of the Sexes was significant beyond its high ratings, even though the movie sure wants me to be.
I could forgive the movie for this if the rest of it was more interesting. The cast is very game. Steve Carell, as Riggs, captures both the clownish exterior he showed the people around him as well as the increasingly desperate man inside. Emma Stone plays King as determined in the face of a changing world, one that was still not accepting of who she truly was. But a game cast can only do so much if the game is paint-by-numbers.
For a sports movie making some attempt at historical significance, The Battle of the Sexes is fairly entertaining. It also has moments that are moving and genuinely inspiring. The incomparable Alan Cumming, who plays the stylist for the women’s tennis tour, has the movie’s best line. After King beats Riggs, she is overwhelmed by the moment, and Cumming’s character, Ted Tinling, takes her aside. Addressing both the moment and her fears at being outed as a lesbian, Tinling tells her, “Times change. You should know; you just changed them.” It’s a humane moment in a movie that didn’t try hard enough to be full of them.
The bulk of the non-tennis parts of the movie are centered around King’s blossoming understanding of her sexuality, which is helped along by a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough. King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), discovers their affair and is strangely stoic about it. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) may have chosen to explore this, but the movie makes the choice early on to be about the upcoming match between King and Riggs and little else. When you hear King talk about this time in her life, it’s clear it was far more complicated than the movie portrays.
And this is what the movie is lacking: complication of any sort. There is conflict, to be sure, but no complexity. It all comes back to the notion of this match between King and Riggs being the focal point of the story. In the movie’s match, King defeats Riggs and sexism while gaining confidence in her sexuality. In real life, Barnett ended up suing King for alimony, and Larry ended up becoming the godfather to King’s children with her future partner. There’s no room for life’s nuances in a circus. And when you make your movie about a circus, there’s little room for life.