Friday, October 13, 2017

Battle of the Sexes--a bad idea, but an entertaining film

It took a while for Battle of the Sexes to reach my community, so I only just saw it. I wasn't really sure I wanted to see it, since I was very turned off by the event when it occurred. The film brought back all of my distaste for the event, too, though it has quite a bit of entertainment value.

Not long ago, John McEnroe offended anyone with a brain by suggesting that Serena Williams would be ranked in the 700s on the ATP tour. Not too many years ago, Tim Henman wandered among ATP players, asking what the top women's rankings would be in the ATP, and every single player he approached took the bait. Because ATP players are no different from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world believes that stronger and faster (i.e., male) are "superior," therefore, men are the "real" athletes.

Comparing women's tennis with men's tennis is ridiculous, but any time women come into their own in sport or any other enterprise, there is a rush to "prove" that they are "inferior" to men. When Billie Jean King and her cohorts first demanded to be paid as real professionals, they were met with hostility by the ATP. In the film, Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman, tells them that if they start their own tour, they will be tossed out of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA). That is an accurate retelling of history; the women who founded the WTA risked everything.

Kramer persists as the enemy throughout the film, but the reality was that most the ATP players were disgusted by the idea that female players thought they should be paid as real athletes. One of their leaders, in fact, was Arthur Ashe, though historians have conveniently omitted this aspect of Ashe's activism from his biography.

When the Battle of the Sexes took place in 1973, I was dismayed. Part of my disapproval was that the event promoted the idea that men's and women's tennis are comparable. But that wasn't the only thing that bothered me. There was also the fact that bigotry toward women was considered "funny." Bobby Riggs, though he almost certainly didn't believe that women were really inferior, was willing to do anything--even exploit the nation's "ha-ha--those crazy women's libbers" attitude toward bigotry--to make money.

In Battle of the Sexes, I'm A Male Chauvinist is seen on signs and on t-shirts worn by some of the men. Try to imagine those same men wearing shirts that said I Am A Racist or I Hate Gays. They may well have hated non-whites and gays, but they were forbidden by the constraints of the society to say so in public. The really horrible part of this phenomenon is that nothing has changed: Bigotry against women is still something people make jokes about, including within the world of professional tennis.

The strength of Battle of the Sexes is its casting. The wonderful Emma Stone gives a thoughtful performance as King, capturing both the great champion's insecurities and her cheekiness. Steve Carrel is perfect as the one-of-a-kind Riggs, a gifted, retired athlete who turned hustler to support his gambling habit. When the actual battle finally occurs, toward the end of the film, the tennis match is quite exciting, and turns Battle of the Sexes into a high quality sports film.

Alan Cumming is a believable Ted Tinling, though the film omits Tinling's obsession with dressing Rosie Casals. A more serious omission is the role that Larry King, Billie Jean's husband, played in the founding of the WTA. The forgotten feminist, King is again forgotten in Battle of the Sexes, in which Austin Stowell portrays him as the supportive and ultimately betrayed husband, but he was much more. He was upset by the unfair way in which women were treated, and he introduced his wife to feminism and encouraged her to believe that she could do anything she aspired to do. Larry King was an integral part of the founding of the WTA.

Sarah Silverman is quite entertaining as Gladys Heldman, the woman who collected $1 from each of the Original 9 in order to found the WTA. And one of my favorite little touches in the film was the casting of Elisabeth Shue--an avid tennis player and fan--as Priscilla Riggs, Bobby Riggs' wife.

I was especially taken with Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser with whom King became romantically involved. Riseborough plays Barnett as a manipulative seducer masquerading as an admiring free spirit, which made nice foreshadowing for what eventually occurred: In 1981, Barnett filed a palimony suit against King, resulting in King's losing millions of dollars in endorsements.

Tennis fans will undoubtedly appreciate Jessica McNamee's portrayal of Margaret Court as smug and judgmental. And while the screenplay implies that King accepted Riggs' offer to play the Battle of the Sexes because Court had lost a less-publicized match to him and because he offered a $100,000 purse, King once said that what really made her feel compelled to accept the offer was the fact that Court had curtsied to Riggs when he presented her with a bouquet before their match. The curtsy is shown in the film, but is never mentioned.

My hope is that when people see Battle of the Sexes, they leave, not angry over the way women were treated in the 70s, but furious over the fact that things haven't really changed that much. And I hope that those who view the film develop an understanding for just how brave Billie Jean King and the Original 9 were.


CLT said...

What bothered me about the film was the amount of time spent on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn. Way too much staring and soft focus for my liking. Very heavy-handed, typical Hollywood. Also the tennis was terrible - like they were playing lollipop tennis. They should have got proper tennis players to do it. Also interesting about Larry King - I wonder why they didn't give him his due - maybe didn't fit the Hollywood version brave girls fighting against mean patriarchy. Although that is of course what it was.

Diane said...

Yeah, I thought too much of the movie was devoted to the King-Barnett relationship, too. I was fine with the tennis, however. My best guess about Larry King is that the time limitation forced some things to get left out, which is always the case. It would have required some backstory that the filmmakers had to leave out. Still, a bit of tweaking of the screenplay could have gotten the message across.

Unknown said...

Maybe the age one was and the way the thing was framed affects the way one viewed the event at the time and in the forty four years since. In the end it was a tennis match between an older guy and a woman in her sporting prime. Who would you seriously expect to win? The Margaret Court match excepted surely it went to form? The fact that people remember it and that they have made another* film about it proves its impact way above and beyond the tennis shots that made up the match.
*There was a perfectly acceptable tv movie a few years ago with Holly Hunter and which did feature the character of Larry King.

Katharine United Kingdom