Battle of the Sexas
Billie Jean King has been a tireless crusader for women – not just women tennis players, but all women. Actually, to be fair, she’s been a trailblazer for all humans. Period.
Her impact on sports and culture can’t be overstated. She was a much deserving recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the highest civilian honor.
Her battles and her life, both deserve to be celebrated in art.
Unfortunately, despite undeniably good intentions, “The Battle of the Sexes” just doesn’t do justice to her life.
This film tells two parallel stories. One focuses on women’s tennis players and their struggle for respect and equal pay. The second focuses on King’s struggles to come to grips with her lesbian self in the 1970s.
The tennis story holds serve, but the gender tale double faults continuously.
While we must give this film credit for being respectful of King, the relationships just don’t ring true – and the lesbian relationship with Marilyn, her hairdresser, in particular, seems written with a wobbly plastic Bic pen.
The fault doesn’t lie with Emma Stone, who sincerely tries to bring King to life. But Stone’s hampered by a script that had too many fingernails-across-chalkboard moments.
Let’s start with the end where the screen credits tell us that King and her lover Marilyn eventually broke up, but don’t tell us how nasty that break up was. King’s lover sued her for palimony and that the embarrassing battle took years to resolve. The script didn’t want to muddy the feel-good narrative.
Many of the characters in “Battle of the Sexes” seem built around stereotypes, often played for laughs.
Not entirely secure in my perceptions, I sought out views of strong female critics. Some were entirely positive, but some shared my worries. April Wolfe of the LA Weekly, in particular, reacted as I did.
“It’s almost as though (the script) can’t help but turn this film into a cheesy romance packed with saccharine Hollywood dialogue,” said Wolfe. “And it’s grating that they can’t work out what two women falling in love might say to one another. They fill those scenes with furtive glances and collaged shots of hands touching hair. Marilyn is ‘free’ and essentially a Manic Pixie Dream Lesbian, whose magical shears, when she trims hair, reveal a person’s latent queerness.”
In fairness, Wolfe found more to like in this film than I did. Both of us admired the honesty and courage in integrating the lesbian affair into the tennis story, but we both kept cringing at trite dialogue.
I also found the portrayal of Bobby Riggs a bit over the top. Granted, Riggs was a shameless self-promoter, but he was also a former Wimbledon champion. As played by Steve Carell, he’s mostly a clown. In fact, King and Riggs became close friends in the years after the match. Tennis champion and promoter Jack Kramer is pretty thoroughly demonized.
All of which is to say that the film works a little too hard to entertain us, exaggerating things here and there. To its credit, however, the depiction of the 1970s is meticulous – down to small details. I did, however, regret the film’s decision to try to turn every actor into an exact replica – a doppelganger – of their real-life counterpart. Impersonation isn’t acting.
And so, I ended up not really enjoying a film I hoped to love about a person I admire. It’s a story worth telling, but I wish it had been told with more authenticity.