The real 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match between the top woman tennis player and an over-the-hill male tennis champion was a media stunt for the ages.
Ninety million people tuned into the live ABC broadcast to see 29-year-old Billie Jean King take on 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in a packed Houston Astrodome.
It was a sorry excuse for a sporting event — a bit like the McGregor-Mayweather fight this summer — but as a proxy for the culture wars of the time, it was ideal.
“It’s Bobby, Bobby Riggs. Listen, I have a great idea: male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist, no offense. You’re still a feminist, right?”
“I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman.”
“Don’t hang up.”
“By the way, I shave my legs.”
The 2017 movie version — also called “Battle of the Sexes” — has a lot of fun with the outdated sexism of the 1970’s, but the filmmakers seem to think the cultural firestorm surrounding the contest and the subsequent media circus does not provide enough material for a movie.
So the screenplay spends an awful lot of time on the personal backstories of King and Riggs, stories which end up not being that relevant to their match-for-the-ages.
Riggs was having marital problems — his wife had kicked him out of the house for gambling — and King was testing out her first lesbian relationship, despite being married. Neither story is handled particularly well. Riggs’s is flat, and King’s is so PG-13 glossy that it doesn’t ring true. Both backstories just seem to distract us from the ultimate action on center court.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, both Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs are fun to watch. Riggs was a born ham, a cartoon of a character that he himself drew, and Carell seems to relish playing him to the hilt. With the help of only a couple fake teeth, Carell looks a lot like the loudmouth who bragged he put the “show” in chauvinist.
“I love women in the bedroom and in the kitchen. But these days they want to be everywhere, they want to be doing everything. Where is it gonna end? Pretty soon us fellas aren’t going to be able to go to a ballgame, we’re not going to be able to go fishing, we’re not going to be able to stop and have a drink after work. And that’s what this whole women’s lib thing is about and it’s gotta stop and Bobby Riggs is the man to stop it.”
Stone has the trickier role, playing the rather serious-minded King. But she subsumes her naturally perky personality just enough that the sober-sided tennis pro well known to the public shines forth. That haircut and especially King’s trademark big glasses complete the portrait nicely.
If the film had delved more deeply into the fascinating social history of how King and her fellow women tennis players broke away from the sport’s patriarchal institutions or spent more time looking at how brilliantly Riggs manipulated the media for maximum exposure, this “Battle of the Sexes” might have been a smart and insightful social satire.
Instead, it’s a kind of shallow celebrity expose presented in the context of one of those traditional sports movies that insist a feel-good outcome is what matters most. Sure, it’s a bit thin but hey, it is entertaining. After all, the bad guy loses and the hero(ine) wins, right?