Battle of the Tepid!


There should be a disclaimer at the beginning of Battle of the Sexes: "This story is based -- loosely -- on real people and events."

Rather than telling the actual story of Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and depicting their characters with something approaching authenticity and depth, the film is as two-dimensional as if it were Battle of the Sexes: The LEGGO Movie. It is like watching a top tennis player get an easy overhead smash and dump it in the net -- or swing wildly and miss it entirely.

It's a GREAT story that deserves a far better telling. 55 year-old former world #1 Bobby Riggs challenges 29 year-old and current world #1 Billie Jean King to a $100,000 tennis match, in a circus atmosphere hyped as pitting women's lib against male chauvinism. But of course its real purpose was to make money, and bundles of it, for ABC (which aired it live) for the Astrodome (where it was played) for the mob (which had a handsome payday from gamblers around the country) and, last but certainly not least, for tennis (and especially women's tennis) which saw an explosion in popularity that still echoes to this day.

Billie Jean King remains one of the greatest women athletes of all time. Not only did she have enormous physical gifts, but she was fierce and intimidating on the court, like a predatory animal.  You don't win 39 Grand Slam titles, give the middle finger to the patriarchal tennis establishment and lead a revolution by being ordinary and mediocre. But, as portrayed by Emma Stone, this fictional version of the still-living Billie Jean King is ordinary -- fragile, submissive and unsure-of-herself.  In this film, tennis is no more than a hobby for Billie Jean who spends most of her time mooning like a gawky, love-struck teenager over her hairdresser. Their breathless, sentimental lesbian affair is the center-piece of Battle of the Sexes and prompts some of the worst, most treacly movie dialogue this side of Love Story.

And then there's Bobby Riggs -- one of sports greatest hustlers -- who the filmmakers seem to take at clownish face value, making them (and us) dupes of his hustle. But Riggs (Steve Carell) was only a clown when it suited his con to be a clown. The film centers on a cartoony depiction of Riggs' marriage to his sterile heiress wife (Elizabeth Shue) while making no mention of the fact that Riggs (an addicted gambler) was into the mob for hundreds of thousands of dollars of gambling debts which could only be satisfied by throwing the match against King.

Great athletes are great for a reason -- talent, hard work, steely commitment to winning -- and Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs were the best in the world. But that's something this flaccid movie has no interest in showing. Neither ever plays tennis. It's the equivalent of making a movie about Michael Jordan that refuses to show him dominating on the basketball court.

The result is a slightly entertaining rom/com that cheapens the real lives of everyone involved, not just Billie Jean and Bobby, but Bill Tilden, Rosie Casals, Margaret Court, (fashion designer) Ted Tinling and tennis itself. In some ways it is more of a circus than the circus it chronicles.  My recommendation? You're better off looking on eBay for the dusty old videocassette, microwaving some popcorn and watching the original ABC broadcast.