Happy news, my good friends: September is almost over. What that means in the world of the film is that, praise Jesus, we’re actually going to start seeing some good movies hit theaters again. At least until January, when Oscar season’s over and studios push out their next bushel of crap. It will be three months before TK can assign me another of the caliber of Charlie Sheen Does 9/11. At least!
Every year, the coming of awards season brings some of the year’s best films… and, inevitably, a few of its worst, boilerplate biopics and “Important” dramas that wear their Oscar aspirations on their sleeves. Battle of the Sexes hovers between those two poles, but, thankfully, more near the better end of the spectrum. Does Battle of the Sexes break new ground in terms of cinematic form? No. But it’s an exceedingly well-done film, and dammit, that’s just fine with me. In watching Battle of the Sexes, what I kept coming back to in my head was last year’s Hidden Figures. The two are similar in a lot of ways. Both are historical dramas set in America in the mid 20th century. Both, while not shying away from the difficulties endured by their subjects, are ultimately crowd-pleasers. They don’t, unlike some of their Oscar-hopeful brethren, suffocate themselves in their own importance. They’re more-or-less standard stories, told in a more-or-less standard way. They hit all the beats you expect them to, but they hit them in a way that’s skillful and doesn’t feel forced.
What’s absolutely not standard, however, about Hidden Figures or Battle of the Sexes, is who these standard stories, told in a standard way, are told about. In Hidden Figures, the central trio are black, female STEM professionals working at NASA during the early days of America’s space program. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—among many, many others—got us to space, but their accomplishments went largely unnoticed by the general public. In Battle of the Sexes, the subject is more widely known: Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), tennis superstar, who in 1973 played a “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match against a 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The match, pitting a self-styled “male chauvinist pig” against a feminist icon at a time when the women’s lib movement—and the subsequent backlash against it—was continuing to pick up steam, captured the public’s interest. Attendance was higher than that of any tennis match up to that time; worldwide, it’s estimated that 90 million people watched it via TV.
What wasn’t known at the time—what Billie Jean was still struggling with herself—was that she was a lesbian. The fact was made public in 1981 when a former partner outed her, costing her millions of dollars in lost sponsorships. That’s all in the future of the Billie Jean of Battle of the Sexes—but her relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Bennett, played by Andrea Riseborough, is one of the pillars of the film. It’s also its best element.
In The Battle of the Sexes, we see the blossom of first love, the uncertainty, the giddiness, the struggle to balance romance with work, the trauma that sometimes accompanies self-discovery… all played out between two women, in a narrative that’s handled with incredible respect and empathy by Stone, Riseborough, and Austin Stowell, playing King’s unfailingly loyal husband Larry. A lot of other things are going on in this movie. King fights back against the tennis establishment, personified in the figure of tennis promoter Jack Kramer (an against-type Bill Pullman). He insists that, while women can play tennis, they’re not as “exciting” to watch as the male players, and they can’t stand up to pressure. It’s not sexist… he’s just stating facts, little lady. King and her cohorts are constantly treated with disrespect in small, needling ways by people who—if you asked them—wouldn’t say they thought any less of women than they do of men. Their looks are commented on. They get asked about husbands and children. They get told people don’t want to see women play tennis as much, so why should women get equal pay? They’re told to stay quiet, be nice, don’t buck the system. It’s not that we’re sexist, is the subtext. OK, women don’t get a fair shake. But why do you have to be such a bitch about it?”
And Billie Jean calls people like these on their shit. That’s the joy of watching The Battle of the Sexes in the year 2017—the message, sorely needed now more than ever—that you can stand up to injustice, and you can triumph. In small ways, maybe, but those small ways get bigger as times goes on. Is the world we live in as simple as all that? No. Can The Battle of the Sexes get a little unsubtle about it? Yes. An early scene has King and her manager, Gladys (Sarah Silverman), charging into a literal boy’s club to challenge Kramer on the issue of equal pay. Again, it’s like Hidden Figures: The problems depicted in the movie were far from fixed by the time the credits roll, but it’s nice to be reminded for a few hours that the actions of individual people can make a difference.
Throughout all this struggle and all the sports movie trappings—yes, we get training montages—the issue of Billie Jean’s sexuality lingers in the background. The word “lesbian” is never said. She rarely talks about it head-on. She’s not ready to. It’s just one element of the film, presented in a very matter-of-fact fashion. Billie Jean’s sexuality is part of who she is, but she’s not defined solely by it. It’s a refreshing thing to see.
The other half of the eponymous “Battle of the Sexes” is in Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs, a natural-born promoter, who plays up a “male chauvinist pig” persona as a sort of performance art. That’s not really who you are, his exasperated wife (Elisabeth Shue) reminds him at one point, pointing out that he’s lived off her money for decades. (As if that precludes him from being sexist?) Riggs is a uniquely perfect villain for the Trump era, a person who—like any number of Twitter eggs—thinks that “Aw, I’m just kidding. Lighten up.” is an adequate defense against accusations of being a fucking asshole. It’s not, of course. If you say sexist things to rile people up, guess what? You are sexist. Riggs may not “mean” his “women should stay in the kitchen” shtick (like it matters whether or not he does), but some of those men waving “I’m A Chauvinist Pig” banners at the Riggs vs. King match do, and they feel validated by what Riggs says.
The Battle of the Sexes’ most pronounced flaw, then, is that when it comes to Bobby Riggs, it wants to have it both ways. The man is a blatant Trump metaphor. I don’t know how much of that is intentional on the part of writer Simon Beaufoy and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), but it’s impossible to ignore. He’s a narcissistic, loud, past-his-prime showboater determined to regain some small shred of legitimacy. His method of doing so is to craft an image of himself as a boorish “tell it like it is” type who will say what people (read: men) are really thinking, then shrug off any criticism when called on it. At the same time, Riggs is still portrayed as something of a sympathetic character. We’re not supposed to like him, but one does get the sense that—as we watch his attempts to bond with his adult son (Lewis Pullman) and repair his relationship with his wife, on the rocks due to his gambling problems—we’re supposed to find him something of a harmless, pitiful, tragic character. And then, of course, he’s played by Steve Carell, who’s a charismatic person and brings such a high-energy goofiness to the role that it’s hard not to think of Riggs as a fun, at times even endearing, character. Sorry. No. I don’t. There’s a card at the end of the movie informing the audience that Riggs did eventually get back together with his wife. It gave me a little shock. “Wait… was I supposed to care about this guy’s marital happiness? Fuck that!”
It’s a case, then, of Battle of the Sexes not going far enough. The “but it’s just a movie!” defense works even less here than it does with other movies, given Battle’s obvious political undertones. All the same, Battle still goes a lot farther than other major studio films—and it’s a fun film besides, boasting a nuanced, steely performance from Stone, an LGBT subplot of the sort we don’t get to see very often, and some damn fine supporting performances from Pullman, Shue, Riseborough, Silverman, Cumming (a bit over-the-top as a gay sportswear fashion designer, but hey, like I said, this is not a particularly subtle film), and especially Natalie Morales as Billie Jean’s fellow tennis pro and Battle of the Sexes commentator Rosie Casals. And—sigh—Carell, too, I guess.