Battle of the Sexes
Runtime 123 minutes
This title has a double meaning. It’s not just about the 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and 29-year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) tennis match in 1973; it’s equally about LBGT rights. In fact the first half is a snorer that concentrates on the latter.
Oh sure, we see King confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, who doesn’t begin to capture Jack’s haughtiness) in planning for the Pacific Southwest Tournament (PST). But it doesn’t explain that the PST was a great tournament for decades, just a step below the Grand Slam tournaments. All the top players, from Bill Tilden on, would come to Los Angeles to play in it en route to the Australian Open, which was then the last big tournament of the year, instead of the first which it is now.
Emphasizing the importance of the PST should have been an essential element that would have shown what a huge step it was for the women to withdraw due to unequal prizes for men vis á vis women. They could have cut all the lesbian sex scenes a little shorter and explained the prominence of the PST because that was a lot more germane to the movie, and the revolution King instigated, than the sex. Frankly, the concentration on sex serves to belittle the enormous risk King took in boycotting the PST.
As an indication of the power Kramer and his attitude had on tennis back then, my friend TV producer Bob Seizer, who worked closely with Kramer back in the day, tells the story about when Jack was running the Pro tour. Pro tennis in those days consisted of Jack playing the top male amateur player from the prior year who had just turned pro in a series of matches throughout the country. Also on the bill was a women’s match between Pauline Betts and Gussie Moran. Jack owned the tour, so one evening he went to Pauline and told her that she was beating Gussie too badly, nine times out of 10, and that she should let up so that crowds would come to watch. Pauline responded, “But you’re beating Pancho Gonzales just as badly.” Jack responded, “Yes, but I’m the king!” and he wasn’t kidding.
Who knew that what inspired King to beat Riggs was the last minute arrival of her female lover to watch the match to support King? At least that’s what directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (script by Simon Beaufoy) would have you believe. They spend an inordinate amount of time on King’s graphic affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). How could this film be rated PG-13 and not R with all the sex and King’s infidelity to her then husband, Larry (Austin Stowell)?
The second half is better as it spends more time on tennis which is what the promotion of the film would have you believe it is about. The shots of the match itself are very good. The production notes do not state that they used videos of the actual match. They do state that they used two tennis players to double for Stone, but nothing is said about doubling for Carrel.
Stone and Carell are close enough in appearance to King and Riggs that it looks like the actors are playing the points. All I can say is that the points they show are clearly played by tennis players because they are far too athletic for either of these two actors to accomplish, even if they are able distinguish a tennis racket from a donut.
While Carell and Stone give good performances, Stone is far too girlie to be a credible representation of King. Actually, I thought the best performance in the movie was by Elisabeth Shue, who plays Riggs’ wealthy wife, Priscilla.
Unmentioned is the rumor that Riggs threw the match in return for forgiveness of a gambling debt to the mob, a plausible story since Riggs was a gambling man all his life. On his first trip to Wimbledon in 1939 he bet $500, half his annual income at the time, that he would win the Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles, and Mixed Doubles, something that had never been achieved theretofore. He did, in fact, win all three. As a result, he also won what today would be close to $2 million. This story could have been an excellent set up for portraying to the audience the basis of Riggs’ character. But I guess King’s lesbian sex was more important to Dayton and Faris.