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Battle of the Sexes is a clunky attempt to find modern meaning in the 1973 tennis match

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in a crowd-pleasing but muddled film.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes
Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The real-life “Battle of the Sexes” was a major media event in 1973 — a tennis match at the Houston Astrodome between Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old former champ, and Billie Jean King, who was 29 at the time and at the height of her powers as a player. The New York Times called it “an atmosphere more suited for a circus than a sports event.”

Riggs, who according to the Times “had bolted to national prominence with his blunt putdowns of women’s tennis and the role of today’s female,” styled himself as a “male chauvinist pig” going into the match. King, who was famous for demanding that women tennis players receive equal pay to the men when they brought in equal crowds, served as a representative for feminist ideals and women more generally.

All that was blatantly part of the marketing, which means to call the match a “metaphor” might be a bit generous. Even at the time, the subtext was the text. It wasn’t just women’s sports that was on the line: It was the assertion that women, more broadly, were as capable as men of playing high-level sports, earning a living, making choices about their lives, and operating well under pressure. King’s victory is not just part of sports history but also American women’s history.

Battle of the Sexes, from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), tries to give the match more heft and complexity than its media spectacle trappings conveyed at the time. At times, it works. But at others, it struggles to find its footing, and sometimes it flat-out falls down.

Battle of the Sexes draws one character much more coherently than the other

Emma Stone turns in a strong performance as King, who is the real focus of the film. Most of Battle of the Sexes’ interest is in King’s side of the story. She and women’s tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) fight back against the smilingly, blatantly sexist head of the US Lawn Tennis Association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), when he refuses to grant the women’s championship match equal prize money to the men’s match, even though they attract the same number of viewers.

King and Heldman pull together a group of the country’s best women tennis players (including Rosie Casals, played by Natalie Morales) to form their own association and go on their own tour, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes.

Andrea Riseborough and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes
Andrea Riseborough and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes.
Fox Searchlight

Though the film’s title invokes that one famous match between King and Riggs, it’s what happens during the Virginia Slims Circuit that is Battle of the Sexes’ main interest. King is married to a supportive husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), but she finds herself drawn to Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser she meets in Los Angeles. The attraction confuses King — who typically doesn’t even bring Larry on tour because she needs to train with no distractions — but it’s undeniable. And when Marilyn joins the ladies on tour, their relationship grows, though it’s kept under wraps for the sake of appearances.

Initially King turned down Riggs’s challenge to a public match, and he played Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) instead — and won. But she took him up on it later, more or less (according to the film) because he wouldn’t shut his mouth and she was pretty sure she could beat him. While Riggs partied and consorted with cheerleaders and promoted his joking-but-not-joking sexist persona, King trained. And she trained hard.

King’s story is much more strongly drawn in Battle of the Sexes than that of Riggs (played by Steve Carell), which is probably on purpose. By the time he challenged King to the match, Riggs was a has-been, a former champion turned compulsive gambler having trouble getting his recovery to stick. His wife wasn’t sure she could stay with him, and he carried around a fair amount of wounded pride. The New York Times called him a “55-year-old hustler who had bolted to national prominence with his blunt putdowns of women's tennis and the role of today's female.”

That “hustler” designation is important: Riggs’s “male chauvinist pig” persona got men (and certain kinds of women) excited because he was saying things they thought but were afraid to say out loud at the risk of being seen as loutish or vulgar. Riggs gave them permission to call themselves male chauvinist pigs and be proud of it. He was an outsize media personality with a big ego and a mouth to match it. (Swap a few key details, and it sounds pretty familiar in 2017 — and it’s totally unsurprising to remember that Donald Trump tried to recreate the Battle of the Sexes in 2000, this time between John McEnroe and the Williams sisters.)

This would seem like an ideal role for Carell, who’s made a career of playing loudmouthed doofuses (Michael Scott, John du Pont) who are still, deep down, worthy of at least pity, if not affection. The movie isn’t quite as good at knowing what to do with Carell’s talents, though, rendering his character somewhat incoherent.

Steve Carell and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes.
Fox Searchlight

Riggs isn’t the villain of Battle of the Sexes. (That distinction belongs to Jack Kramer, whose too-slight role in the film is disappointingly one-note.) In giving Riggs’s backstory, the movie seems to want viewers to sympathize with him: Here’s a guy who doesn’t really believe most of what he’s said in public, and who’s struggling to keep himself from obscurity.

Of course, if you’re willing to exploit a distasteful attitude in public, then you at least tacitly agree with it, which is a big hurdle when it comes to engendering any sort of sympathy for Riggs. And unfortunately, Battle of the Sexes’ Riggs is too thinly written to let us really get there — which obfuscates his character in the end.

Battle of the Sexes can’t overcome the limitations of its own source material

Battle of the Sexes, for all its failings, is still enjoyable to watch. Stone in particular is terrific, and Faris and Dayton make the smart choice to shoot the film with the kind of texture and camerawork that evokes movies from 1973.

But as a sports movie, it’s unsatisfying — though that’s not exactly its fault. Sports movies almost always hang on the big game or match as some kind of metaphor for a real social battle. The games and matches often stand in for cultural struggles around race, class, gender, and national identity — but that struggle is the subtext, and the movie brings it to the fore. (Think of The Wrestler, or Remember the Titans, or Cinderella Man, or Rocky.)

Steve Carell and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes
Steve Carell and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes.
Fox Searchlight

The real-life Battle of the Sexes had no subtext. The subtext was the text from the start. You might even call it a supertext, thanks to the name and Riggs’s antics. (The screenplay also has a predilection for forcing characters to explain and re-explain all of their actions and motivations, which makes the whole thing extra ponderous.) So bringing that story to the screen had extra challenges that this screenplay can’t quite hurdle; it never seems to know what the “real” story is. It’s about gender equality and equal pay. It’s also about LGBTQ rights, and it’s a love story. It’s also about how the spectacle of sports can chew people up and spit them out as useless while they still have decades to live. It’s about courage and about a changing America and, at the same time, about how little has changed.

Most of all, though, it’s about Billie Jean King — and maybe the movie’s smartest tactic would have been to simply stick to her, without trying too hard to fill out Riggs’s character and underplaying its hand. Even in 1973, she was the much more compelling character. Maybe someday she’ll get a movie that truly gives her what she’s due.

Battle of the Sexes premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened in theaters in the US on September 21.