About a fortnight ago (as some British peeps would say), I saw Battle of the Sexes with some friends, actually it was my second time viewing it. I like the movie that much to see it twice, I am a bit tempted to watch a third time on the big screen. I was captivated, to say the least. My friend pointed out that a lot of movies that get played in our town (without delay, I would add) are usually summer blockbusters, male targeted shoot ‘em ups, rom-coms that are often heteronormative and only have the woman focus on getting a man, horror films, Brokeback Mountain was played but it had a “tragic queer” story, animated fare, and teen barf-fests. Our town is also highly conservative, politically and socially, what it did to Jackie (a film about a revered and traditionally feminine icon who is shown to be flawed and vulnerable) was delay showing in the local theaters at the official release date and only screen it for a limited time after about a month. The same happened with BOTS but upon walking to the screen room, we saw a true gem that was lost in a haystack.
Battle of the Sexes focuses on the POV of both Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) as they prepare for the eponymous tennis match that proved to be a huge turning point in the Second Wave of Feminism. The film is also a Coming of Age story and Coming Out story that doesn’t end with a tragedy along with a Sports film. Directed by the team behind Little Miss Sunshine, the film touches on the events with heart and humor; Riggs and King are both shown to be flawed, vulnerable, driven, and talented individuals who struggle with their own demons (his is gambling, while she struggles with her sexuality) as they prepare for that match. Everyone is painted with a sympathetic brush, even if they come off as antagonistic; one prime example is Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) who is shown as homophobic as she is in real life and really counting on Billie Jean’s shame of carrying on an affair with a woman whilst married to work against her in a tennis match they will compete in; the film could have taken the opportunity to paint her as a ogress who is out for Billie Jean, but it didn’t. We see how vulnerable Margaret is amongst the other women players, we see how she driven she is by her sport, we see and are crushed when Bobby beats her in a match called “the Mother’s Day Massacre”, and we see her look pretty hopeful as she watches the penultimate match between her former opponents. We get the sense of a woman who, as much as she’s revered as the indefatigable “The Arm” by her peers, is not able to be chummy with her peers in the Virginia Slims tour and whose best days as a tennis player are behind her.
Behind every Great Man is a Woman helping him and every woman waits for Prince Charming to come. The film actually reveals that, while most people in 1973 thought this way regarding Gender Roles, the truth was a lot more complicated than that. Of the two women tennis players we see whose lives and marriages are focused on, their husbands are actually taking some traditionally feminine roles in the relationship. Margaret’s husband Barry (James MacKay) not only helps with the bags and cheers his wife from the stands, he is often seen cradling and soothing their infant son while Margaret works out and prepares for her upcoming match. Billie Jean’s husband Larry King (Austin Stowell), not the newscaster, makes it clear how he supports his wife in her chosen career and recognizes her true love will always be tennis and he helps Billie with icing her knees. He is also shown to be fully aware that his wife is attracted to women, even if he doesn’t verbally say a thing to her, and takes both her victories and defeats to heart. You also get that Billie Jean isn’t just guilty due to internalized homophobia but also because she recognizes how supportive and terrific her husband is, in ways that were unusual for the time (in real life, they are close friends and she is even Godmother to one of his children). With Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), the sexual attraction is very clear and isn’t played for the titillation of a male audience that finds lesbian relationships as a fetish, but is recognized as romantic and a big part of Billie Jean’s own journey. In this particular scene you could, even without the benefit of sight, sense the awkwardness and chemistry when the two women meet.
That relationship hits a few speed bumps as Marilyn recognizes what she was warned (by Larry, no less) about Billie Jean’s true love being tennis but really comes through for her when she shows up to give Billie Jean a trim, leaving for Houston in the middle of work just to be there to help her boo (cue “awes” from me). In real life, Billie Jean’s and Marilyn’s relationship turned out to be a “Woman Scorned” situation and ended up ugly with a palimony suit; BJ eventually forgave Marilyn for outing her and is currently in a 30 plus year relationship with fellow tennis player Ilana Kloss. Other couples include tennis player/fashion designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) and his partner (don’t know if intimate but the chemistry is perfect) who are in sync with one another’s thoughts and create some luscious outfits for the women players. Bobby Riggs and his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, yes THAT ONE) get a lot of focus as a couple where the highly capable and strong-minded wife watches in dismay as her husband barely faces his gambling addiction and he plays at being a Misogynist on national television despite her bankrolling his non-tennis career. We see a tough, clear-eyed, fashionable woman who loves her husband but often is disappointed by his lack of self-control and tells him that she is willing to walk away from the marriage even if she’ll whimper once he is out of sight. Bobby is shown as dearly valuing his wife’s approval and being a good family man but doesn’t quite know how to achieve that well. Their later reconciliation is somewhat fictionalized (they actually renew their vows about 20 years after the events of the movie) but is very heartwarming and shows them on the same page. Love is a many splendored (and messy) thing…..
“No stereotypical nastiness” was one of the reasons my friend listed as what she loved about the film. I did feel a great sense of camaraderie amongst the women in the film and the only competition that flamed between women occurred on the tennis court rather than in everyday social and professional situations. Nothing about who is prettier or uglier or skinnier or more talented; it was women backing each other up and it there were women who seemed doubtful of Billie Jean being able to beat Bobby Riggs due to her being a woman, it was more a reflection of the gender politics in that era and how older generations of women didn’t have a lot of faith in their own gender. Attitudes that were well reflected in the defunct (but still beloved) series Mad Men where women often doubted their own intellects or voiced phrases like “made by a man but simple enough for a woman”, along with projecting a version of “tall poppy syndrome” at any woman who did something like leave a dissatisfying marriage or moved beyond secretarial work in her career. That aside, there is a great sense of women supporting one another, even with very minimal characters and background actors: hairdressers actually congratulating the tennis players on sticking it to the men, women coming out to root for Billie (I’m looking at you “Libbers Not Lobbers” Lady),the quiet cocktail waitress who cringes at the sexism exhibited by the men she waited on and is nervously watching the match as she serves drinks, and even Bobby Riggs’s “Bosom Buddies” (young pretty girls who accompanied Riggs by pulling him on a rickshaw) stayed with Billie’s fans, friends, and family to cheer the champion. Priscilla even tells off Bobby about how his play-acting as a Male Chauvinist pig really affects her and doesn’t harbor any ill will against Billie Jean the way many high-profile wives have against women who are competing against their husbands.
I could go on about how much I love the women in this film. From their personalities, their bodies, their clothes, their talents, and how flawlessly the actresses have portrayed them. Sounds odd I mentioned bodies, well don’t run away, this is not a Male Gaze appreciation of how the women look. In an age where the right to choose what to do with our bodies as women is being threatened, films like Battle of the Sexes and shows like GLOW (Netflix Series and Original Wrestling Show) are instrumental in reminding women to not only feel beautiful in their bodies but also to feel empowered by what their bodies can do rather than primarily how those bodies look; it also is very important for young women and girls to see a huge diversity of physical appearance in media and not just the same toned and nip-tucked “au naturel” woman with thigh gaps and breasts the size of cantaloupes. Like the women on GLOW and Mad Men, Billie Jean King and her compatriots are not only beautiful (even with the hair length and glasses Howard Cosell), but flesh and blood characters who have a great strength of mind and body. There are women of different shapes walking about in the fabulous costumes from the 1970s (Priscilla Riggs is one prime example of a fashionista). Emma Stone chose to not only dye her hair dark brown and get a bit of sun exposure to resemble Billie Jean in that era (on that note Steve Carell didn’t do shabby in replicating Riggs’s look), but she trained to play tennis and put on 15 lbs. of muscle on her svelte frame. Elisabeth Shue as Priscilla Riggs looks California Blonde 1970s fabulous with her coiffed hair, jumpsuits, pastel pink lipstick accentuating her bronze complexion, and the lines on her face she didn’t have nipped and tucked as to resemble both a woman in her forties and a woman of that era before plastic surgery had gotten more invasive.
Billie Jean, Priscilla, Gladys Heldman (the fabulous Sarah Silverman), Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), etc. are all forces of nature: strong, capable, outspoken, confident, not without their own vulnerabilities but able to handle any men talking down to them or trying to dominate them (Hint: there is a lot of that). Gladys and Rosie are the “tokens” in this group of women: there are hardly any people of color in the world of tennis in that era, not even a lot in the audience (aside from the massive crowds at the Battle of the Sexes and this woman I will call “Unimpressed Woman in Lime Green”), something that is evident with how Gladys responds to being told she isn’t allowed to be in a lounge (“Is it because I’m a woman or a Jew?”). That prejudice was very widespread at that time, with Jewish Americans not being admitted to different clubs due to their backgrounds; Rosie is the only Latina in the film and as much as we see her being able to clap back at men who condescend to her and Billie, we see her being in an uncomfortable space with Howard Cosells holding her really close to his body while they provide commentary for the final match in the film. We get that sense of how many women were so used to men infringing on their personal space and their lives, something Billie knows all too well when she calls her husband to tell Bobby at midnight that she agrees to his proposition, especially given that Bobby first called her at midnight with said proposition. That is her biggest assertive act done in private.
So if you want to see women that are in full possession of their bodies and aren’t tripping over everything, bold and nuanced emotions, men exploring their emotional selves, vintage fashions, and women asserting themselves. Go see Battle of the Sexes; even if it isn’t a perfect film, it’s one with a lot of heart.