There’s an oft-quoted line from a 1982 Frank and Ernest comic strip about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers: As good as Fred was, Ginger could do everything he did, only backward and in heels.
Though both actors found success apart, history will forever pair them, as Astaire and Rodgers. Like peanut butter and jelly, the two are never far apart. The same can be said of tennis pros Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Separately, they were the best of their eras—she won both the French Open and the Australian Championship once, the U.S. Open four times, and Wimbledon six times; he won one Wimbledon and two U.S. Championship slams as well as three U.S. Pro Slams—but history will forever cement them together as the two who duked it out in ABC’s primetime exhibition match: The Battle of the Sexes.
The Battle of the Sexes, the new film from husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, traces this 1973 moment where King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell) found themselves on a public collision course.
As the title suggests, Battle culminates in the much-talked-about tennis match between King and Riggs but takes its sweet time getting there. Dayton and Faris seem less interested in the actual match, or tennis for that matter, and more about how this self-styled male chauvinist and a closeted feminist represents similar modern-day struggles. Riggs’s bad behavior is treated with a “boys will be boys” shrug, while King repeatedly encounters sexism, most repugnantly from tennis promoter and commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman).
These repeated attacks on a woman’s place in the world carry extra significance for Dayton and Faris, particularly when a side character mentions that a woman couldn’t beat a man in tennis any more than she could hold a political office, dispelling any doubt that Battle of the Sexes isn’t in direct conversation with the 2016 presidential election.
And though Battle wishes to engage a past story with a present struggle, it ultimately comes off like a strung-together series of on the nose moments in a movie full of on the nose dialogue and knowingly looks. When Riggs parades around his home like a buffoon before his much wealthier wife (Elisabeth Shue), she looks at him with comfortable condescension from 2017.
What’s lost on Dayton and Faris is not the cultural significance of this moment; it is the excitement of a tennis match and the electricity of King’s play. Dayton and Faris, working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Pamela Martin, re-create the famous match from behind King and Riggs, primarily from a high angle, mostly to hide the doubles but also to invoke the aesthetic of a fixed TV camera. But there is no reason to invoke when invention is possible. Oh, how Battle could have benefited from a camera on the court, between King and Riggs, following the ball as it dips and slashes its way over the net and onto the court. Instead, the battle plays out on the faces of those watching the match on TV screens.
For Dayton and Faris, the Battle of the Sexes is not about the battle between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs; it’s about how little we’ve come in 45 years. That’s a fine sentiment; it just turns King and Riggs into supporting players in their own movie.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Produced by Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, Robert Graf
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue
Fox Searchlight Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 121 minutes, Opens September 29, 2017