‘Billie Jean for President” reads the placard hoisted by an excitable fan at the climactic moment of Battle of the Sexes. Subtle! The story of an epic showdown between a feminist and a troglodyte is for Hollywood an unmissable opportunity to restage the 2016 election as a 1973 tennis match, the big attraction being that this time the woman wins.
Except the movie undermines its own point by not understanding who the real underdog is, nor why he’s ever so much more appealing than the dull, grinding standard-bearer for female equality. If this movie had an anthem, it would be “I Am Woman, Hear Me Bore.”
Bobby Riggs (played as pathetically needy by Steve Carell) is in 1973 a 55-year-old clubhouse hustler having problems with his rich wife (Elisabeth Shue), who throws him out of the house because of his gambling addiction. When a Rolls-Royce turns up in the driveway and he sheepishly admits he won it in a bet, she calls it the last straw. How dare he ruin her life by winning luxury automobiles? He’s the kind of guy who attends a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting and urges the other attendees not to quit betting but to quit losing. There’s a difference, he explains, between gamblers and hustlers. It’s a glorious moment, sort of the country club version of General Patton telling the men that the goal isn’t to die for their country — it’s to make the other dumb sonofabitch die for his.
All that is mere background, though. In the foreground is Billie Jean King (a rabbity, withdrawn Emma Stone). Depending on the moment, she’s either the best or second-best female tennis player in the world, but the boys at the United States Lawn Tennis Association won’t pay her on par with the male players. They argue that women’s tennis is simply worth less in the marketplace. King huffs out the door and forms the Women’s Tennis Association along with a pushy promoter (Sarah Silverman, who tries hard for laughs that don’t quite materialize). The righteousness of their cause is somewhat muddled by their dependence on a sponsor selling a brand of women’s cigarettes that touted smoking as a dieting aid. Younger readers will not recall this, but there was once an era when it was considered unladylike to smoke. Feminists rejoiced when they broke down this barrier. You’ve come a long way, baby. Celebrate by giving yourself cancer.
King meanwhile strikes up a flirtation with a vixenish hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), which is inconvenient because she has a husband. (His name is Larry King. Not the former CNN host and legendary USA Today columnist.) Her sexuality is presented as very dicey and dangerous stuff, but since we in 2016 know the outcome of her coming out — nobody much cared — there isn’t a lot of dramatic mileage here. This isn’t The Imitation Game. Gradually America learned King was gay, and America shrugged.
As if to present a Big Top version of her struggle for equality, Riggs starts making a nationwide spectacle of his boast that he could beat any woman in tennis, even giving himself the title “male chauvinist pig.” Long before Trump vs. Megyn Kelly, he becomes America’s favorite sexist troll, making such a ruckus that huge prize money flocks to his proposed matches. Then he goes out and beats Margaret Court, the top-ranked ladies’ tennis player at the moment. Not only does he beat her, he demolishes her, 6–2, 6–1.
It’s impossible not to think of John McEnroe’s comment that Serena Williams would be ranked no. 700 if she played in the men’s circuit. Riggs, though a Wimbledon champion in his youth, is now 55 and out of shape. Instead of training, he parties. He isn’t close to being one of the top 700 male tennis players in the world. When he goes on to play King, he manages to win ten games over three sets and proves a perfectly creditable opponent. The movie’s implied contention that women’s tennis offers the same quality of play as men’s simply doesn’t withstand acquaintance with the facts.
Moreover, that point is made in the dullest way imaginable. Simon Beaufoy is one of the most accomplished screenwriters working today, with The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire to his vast credit, but he falls into the earnest-message-movie trap and keeps having his characters state, restate and re-restate the themes of the film in one on-the-nose scene after another. The directors, the wife-and-husband team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who made Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 but haven’t had a hit since, don’t seem to realize that the irrepressible Riggs — he’s such a born entertainer that he wears scuba flippers for one match and plays another with a dog on a leash — is the one we want to hang out with. King is simply a grind, a classic student-council nerd who stays home and does her homework while Riggs, the class clown, is out there making the world giggle with outrageous stunts and insult comedy.
Was Billie Jean King the 1970s version of Hillary Clinton? Of course she was. In her self-absolving new memoir What Happened, Hillary is — still — bragging about all the briefing books she slogged through, all the policy memos she mastered, all the mileage she racked up visiting other countries. If getting elected president were a question of who did the most homework, she would have prevailed. But if there had been an election about whom America preferred in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, Riggs would have won in a landslide.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.