Tennis movies, let alone good ones, are few and far between. Part of the struggle lies in finding a way to portray the tennis action on screen in a believable way, with actors that are so far from what a skilled modern pro player is capable of. Battle of the Sexes skirts this problem somewhat by focusing more on an exhibition event and the social issues surrounding it than on the precise mechanics of forehands and backhands.
Battle of the Sexes focuses its story on Billie Jean King, in the time leading up to the most-watched tennis match in history. It touches on the start of the Women’s Tennis Association, equal pay issues, sexual discovery and prejudices, and all the pressures of representing all of Womankind in a televised match viewed by millions of people.
The movie opened in select theaters two weekends ago, and to wide release this past weekend. We attended a sparse morning showing, next to a woman who loudly scoffed anytime a man said something sexist in the film. She scoffed a lot.
Other than scoffing and sputtering ourselves, and even shedding a few tears by the end, here are eight thoughts we had during the film, after the film, and after mulling it over for a couple more days and–like most people on the Internet–finding even more to complain about.
So without further ado, here are our 8 Big Thoughts About Battle of the Sexes:
1. OMG, Nothing Has Changed: This was a horrible thought to have, considering the real strides that have been made to achieve more equality for women in the sport of tennis, especially at the Slams. But very early on in the movie, the arguments that men were having about why women in sport are inferior to men were identical to what many, many men still say today. When you think about how people’s lives have changed in respect to technology between the events in this movie and today, it is astounding — and then equally astounding how in that same 40+ years, so many people still think and say exactly the same sexist things.
2. There Are Levels of Sexism: One of the go-to criticisms of feminists is that they hate men. The nice thing about Battle of the Sexes was that it showed different kinds of men, with differing personalities, motivations, and views–as well as Billie Jean’s different reactions to them. Some of the best parts of the film are in single moments or lines of dialogue, and one was about how BJK viewed Jack Kramer as a much more dangerous kind of sexist. Bobby Riggs was this blustery, boorish showman spouting horrifically chauvinistic things, but in a weird way he had way more respect for the ladies of tennis than the guys in the board rooms and commentary boxes that posed as gentlemen yet exerted way more effort in actually keeping women “in their place.” And a lot of those same exact kind of men are still in charge of a lot in tennis.
3. Margaret Court is a Cartoon Villain: Court is rather a cartoon villain in real life as well, but her portrayal in Battle of the Sexes felt more like a nod to the present than a realistic portrayal. This can be an issue with most biopics, though–when you know the future of the characters, it can color how we view those scenes whether they’re done right or not.
Reportedly Court did remain separate from much of the tour, being the only mother traveling with her family, so if the filmmakers did extensive research–it does make it less likely for the other women to remember exactly what Court was like in the 1970s. But that lack of depth in her character meant she was always just lingering at the edge of scenes giving ominous looks in BJK’s direction, like she was planning something sinister, but then nothing really happened, and so it all felt rather extraneous.
4. The Movie Had an Issue with Tone: Part of the film’s promotion was that it would reveal more of what was going on in King’s life at the time, all the added pressures she was under whilst facing the prospect of losing this match to Bobby Riggs. In addition to concerns for her career, her fellow players, and the women’s movement, King was also torn between loyalty to her husband and to her true sexuality. Early on in the film, there is a lot of time spent on flirtation and, though not graphic, the love scenes are intimate.
This seems to be setting up a rather serious, in-depth look at King’s personal life, but then the movie kind of pulls up and glosses over other elements, so at various times during its running, Battle of the Sexes veers between intense drama, cheerful comedy, and heavy-handed Message Movie of the Week fare. It’s not clear if the motivation was to try and cast the widest net possible, but it ultimately leaves viewers wondering how to feel about anything.
5. It Wasn’t About the Tennis: Obviously, centering a movie on the Battle of the Sexes is meant to be focusing on the bigger issue of feminism. But at one point in the movie, King’s husband Larry warns girlfriend Marilyn that the tennis will always come first for Billie…however, nothing in the movie up to that point or after really paints that picture at all. There are some lines about needing to focus and a few nods to sore knees, but it feels like a huge disservice to the character and the movie to never really portray a love of or excitement for tennis.
6. Seeing the Other Side: While the current political climate and issues with the media have shown that giving too much deference to “the other side” can be very detrimental to humanity, it is something that helps this film a great deal. It was necessary for getting invested in the results of the Battle of the Sexes–and the event as a whole–to see a little of what Riggs was going through with his family and gambling addiction and his own sense of self-worth. While this was another element that could have made for a much grittier film, there was enough here to prevent Riggs from being a mere caricature of male chauvinism, and to instead illustrate some of the issues of the male ego and long-held societal beliefs that affect women’s rights.
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7. Okay, Maybe Things Have Changed: Another striking part of Battle of the Sexes was the commentary from legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell. Rather than use an actor to portray Cosell, the filmmakers chose to work in archive footage and a little CGI, because as director Jonathan Dayton put it: “We felt it was really important to put the real Howard Cosell in and use exactly what he said, because you almost wouldn’t believe it otherwise.”
These days we often criticize male commentators for the way they subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) patronize or objectify women, but when you hear Cosell’s extremely open on-air discussion on how BJK could be more feminine and attractive, it’s a bit jaw-dropping. Even more startling was the way the commentator stood with an aggressively domineering arm around co-commentator Rosie Casals (played by Natalie Morales in the film) throughout the match. He almost looks like he’s holding her hostage. The real-life Casals remembers that distinctly, saying “He didn’t think that women belonged in the booth, that’s for damn sure.”
Some of the other bits of Cosell’s commentary in the film illustrate what the filmmakers have also said: that the sportscaster was actually one of the more progressive men at that time–which shows just how far we actually have come, even if we haven’t reached true equality yet.
8. If This Were Fiction, It’d Be Called a Mary Sue: There is a lot to be thankful to Billie Jean King for, and this film is obviously meant as a tribute to her legacy to women’s tennis, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. That said, the issues with tone we mentioned earlier are also due to BJK being portrayed in true Mary Sue fashion–that is, other than the Evil Margaret Court, all the other players love her. Her husband loves her, her girlfriend loves her, and they all happily coexist with barely more than a few sighs to indicate what surely should have involved more emotional struggle and hurt feelings. From the very beginning there are people always standing by to nod knowingly and applaud everything she’s doing.
BJK is very well-liked in real life, and perhaps she really was a ray of sunshine that waved a dollar bill in the air triumphantly and changed the course of history without needing to exert much energy beyond her powerful aura. After all, the filmmakers supposedly had to invent a break-up between her and Marilyn for dramatic purposes, though there was a much uglier break-up coming down the road. The subjects of biopics don’t need to be deeply flawed to be interesting, of course, but playing it as a glossy, Disney Cinderella Story left us feeling sort of detached from any emotional stakes until the very end of the movie.
Battle of the Sexes is still worth seeing, and overall it’s an enjoyable movie, with some fun comedic moments and some interesting and revelatory peeks into the past. While it lost its way about its overall message, there was resonance in smaller bits of the film, and there is always satisfaction in seeing a powerful woman kick some chauvinist butts. And Sarah Silverman was fantastic as Gladys Heldman, the founder of World Tennis magazine, the woman instrumental in helping the The Original Nine start their own tour, and someone who deserves her own biopic.
Have you seen Battle of the Sexes? Let us know what struck you the most about the film in the comments below, and as always, please share on social media if you enjoyed this review!