Battle of the Sexes Too Camp?


Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Fox Searchlight, 121 minutes, PG-13 (sexual situations, blurry nudity)
★★★ ½

As I have noted before, comedy-dramas tend to dilute both genres to the point where they’re either not funny enough, or they are too silly for us to take seriously things we’re supposed to. However, if ever a real-life event was both ridiculous and poignant at the same time, it came in 1973, with the $100,000 winner-take-all tennis match between 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs.

King (b. 1943) is important to women’s tennis in more ways than merely winning 39 Grand Slam titles; she was the first tennis player to embrace second- wave feminism and insist that women be treated equally to male stars. In 1970, King confronted U.S. Lawn Tennis Association president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman in the film) over the 12:1 pay differential between men and women. She was told to take it or leave it. She left it. King was a founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and a leading light of the Virginia Slims tournament.

In the movie, we meet King (Emma Stone) in the aftermath. Although World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) helped organize the Virginia Slims circuit, it was a shoestring operation in which competitors roomed and traveled together. Moreover, King, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), and a handful of others were recognized as superb female stars, but only the men were viewed as true athletes. Battle of the Sexes takes us to several breakthrough moments.

Meet Bobby Riggs (1918-88), a former tennis #1 in his own right, but that was in 1939 (as an amateur) and in 1946 and 1947. By 1973, he was basically a hustler running strange exhibitions such as playing matches while sitting in chairs between returns, dressing in bizarre outfits, or while leading dogs on leashes.

His marriage to the wealthy Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue) was on the rocks and all attempts to give up gambling failed for the simple reasons that Bobby loved to gamble and he was good at it. He sensed that he could literally cash in on the women’s movement by showing that the top women’s players couldn’t hold their own even against a long-retired male such as himself. Billie Jean King knew Bobby and his antics, and refused to take part in his freak show—until he annihilated Margaret Court, who was then the top-ranked woman. Then it was soooo on.

As Casey Stengel once said, “You could look it up;” King ran Riggs ragged and defeated him in straight sets, an event that many credit as a breakthrough for female athletes. Less heralded was that King, who was married to Larry (Austin Stowell), a very devoted man, was also ambivalent about her attraction to women and the affair she was having with beautician Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

For younger readers, if the idea of women needing to prove their worthiness strikes you as incomprehensible, allow me to remind you that, yes, they did back then. And it was much, much harder for gays and lesbians. Only a handful—like King’s uniform designer Teddy Tinley (Alan Cumming)—lived openly gay lives and they did so at great peril. Virginia Slims organizers worried that a “scandal” such as the King-Barnett romance could sabotage all their efforts.

Lesbianism is handled tenderly in the film. It is, however, one of the few places where the direction doesn’t veer toward being over the top. King was/is a key figure in women’s rights and tennis, but the game depicted on the screen is more robust and powerful than it was at the time. King pointed the way to the muscularity that would come, but at 5’5” was not the sort who could physically dominate many opponents.

Of course, most sports films exaggerate the action. I didn’t think, though, that it was possible to make Riggs’ antics appear more outrageous than they were. The events you see actually occurred, but the tone is ramped to garish arena rock-meets-World Wrestling Federation levels. In my view, it is another confirmation that mixing comedy and drama risks losing magnitude and perspective. What do we recall when the movie is done: the folly or the triumph? The performances are superb, especially Stone, Riseborough, the spitfire Morales, and the sensitive Stowell. I was less enamored with Carrel, who seemed more like he was in a Saturday Night Live sketch. But we must still ask if we are witnessing history at the crossroads or history as camp.

Forty-four years later, Riggs’ hype-fueled style is the norm in the sports entertainment world. But is it actually true that the 1973 Battle of the Sexes was a breakthrough moment for women’s sports and sexual freedom? (Roe v. Wade was also upheld in 1973.) I’m tempted to say both changed in 1975, when an open lesbian fled communist Czechoslovakia and was granted asylum in the USA: Martina Navratilova. She became arguably the greatest female tennis player in history—and on her own terms. If King versus Riggs was the Battle of the Sexes, Navratilova in her prime versus Serena Williams in hers would have been the Battle of the Ages.

Rob Weir

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