The not-so-historic clash of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
From the October 9 Issue
The 1973 tennis match between the 29-year-old female champ Billie Jean King and the 55-year-old former champ Bobby Riggs was many things. It was one of the great “pseudo-events” of all time, fitting perfectly Daniel Boorstin’s definition in his 1962 book The Image as “dramatic performances in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out more or less well their prepared script.” The script, in this case, was the Male Chauvinist Pig vs. the Women’s Libber.
The match was a ludicrous and colorful distraction from the accelerating disaster in Vietnam and the accelerating collapse of a presidency. And it was a forerunner of the stupid culture wars of our day in which our national discussion is overtaken by absurd sideshows (the War on Christmas! the silencing of Sandra Fluke!).
Yes, the event dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes” was many things. But a historically significant moment it was not—not for tennis, not for women, and not for homosexuals. Similarly, Billie Jean King herself was many things at the time—but adorable and demure and unsure of herself she was not. One of the most ferocious and competitive players who ever lived, she was driven and determined and not at all personable. And Bobby Riggs, too, was many things—an anything-for-attention reprobate who stumbled into a commercially brilliant idea by playing a cartoonish version of a woman-hating troglodyte—but cute he was not.
Alas, Battle of the Sexes presents us an adorable, demure, and unsure Billie Jean against a cute Bobby. It is set against the backdrop of King’s discovery and exploration of her lesbian feelings and her battle against the casual sexism of the powers-that-be in tennis and American culture more generally. Emma Stone turns Billie Jean into the second coming of her Oscar-winning Mia from La La Land; it’s a wonder this woman can get a ball over the net, given her half-heartedness, let alone win a tournament or set up a competing women’s tennis league to challenge the male-dominated U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. And Steve Carell’s Bobby is neither a proto-Trump nor a self-inflated caricature of the rearguard American action against gender egalitarianism but rather a lovable con man with a gambling problem and a heart of gold.
Everything that might have made this movie more interesting is left on the sidelines. A genuine exploration of the very real risks King was taking experimenting with same-sex attraction as a married woman in 1973 would have been more compelling than the inadvertently comic imagery offered as she and her first girlfriend contemplate their desires—footage that unfortunately calls to mind television commercials of the era for Vidal Sassoon and Summer’s Eve.
Even worse, the movie dispenses entirely with the possibility that Riggs might have deliberately thrown the match in order to settle gambling debts with the mob, as Don Van Natta Jr. revealed in an explosive 2013 piece for ESPN. The movie doesn’t even show Riggs battling against the temptation. Far from it; Battle of the Sexesseems determined to quash the very idea by showing us a scene in which Riggs lays a $15,000 bet on himself to win.
Why do this? Because screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and codirectors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are committed to the narrative that Billie Jean King’s victory meant something transcendent. They cannot allow her triumph to be mitigated in any way by even a hint that Riggs—who had slaughtered King’s rival Margaret Court in straight sets only months before he collapsed in the King match—might have dogged it for money.
Because Battle of the Sexes takes itself so seriously, it cannot even have that much fun with the cheesy and over-the-top spectacle the match became. The only inspired flourish is the use of Howard Cosell’s classically ridiculous and knowing color commentary during the match (with a nice CGI job placing the actress Natalie Morales in direct proximity to the real Cosell).
King wins a cool $100,000 but what do we see? Emma Stone going for consecutive Oscars by having a sobbing fit alone in a locker room. Carell getting an unearned sentimental final moment when Bobby makes up with his incomprehensible wife (Elisabeth Shue), whom we’ve seen be dismissive and contemptuous in one scene and lovingly thoughtful in the next. And then, at the last moment, we get an anachronistic speech from Billie Jean’s wise gay dress designer: “Someday we will be free to love whom we love.”
So Battle of the Sexes takes a fizzy comic moment appropriate for satire and turns it into an ABC Afterschool Special. What a waste of a juicy subject. What a bore.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.