It’s fun to see a tennis movie. Even when I was very young in the 1980s, I can remember being able to recognize Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chrissie Evert, and Martina Navratilova. I knew about Billie Jean King and her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, but I really had no idea of the spectacle of it, at least as it’s presented in the new movie Battle of the Sexes.
For those who maybe don’t know, the match was cooked up by the 55-year-old Riggs at a time when women in tennis were fighting for some tiny measure of equality with the men. Riggs styled himself, at least publicly, as a male chauvinist who saw women as inherently inferior, and challenged the 29-year-old King, one of the very best women’s players in the world, to a match to prove he was right.
Much of the movie cross-cuts between King’s story and Riggs’, showing King as she struggles with equality and her own reckoning with her sexuality, and showing Riggs as he deals with the constant effect his chronic gambling has on his marriage. And it seems reasonable to give both of them screen time, as they’re both such an important part of the story, and are played wonderfully by Emma Stone and Steve Carell.
But still, the entire time I couldn’t help but wish I were watching a Billie Jean King biopic instead. Her story is far, far more compelling than Riggs’ is, and it’s obvious that even the filmmakers realize this, as they dive much more deeply into the King side of things, with Riggs’ actions often seeming like a distraction as we wait to get back to King. Her story is even more cinematically stylized than Riggs’-- sometimes to a fault-- while Riggs’ scenes are often cartoonish. Fitting for the character, yes, but the drastic tone shifts are distracting.
Battle of the Sexes does fall into some unfortunate sports movie clichés, but I have to say that I found the match itself to be tense and exciting, despite the outcome being very obviously known. Even so, had this been a smaller part in a much larger story about the extraordinary life of Billie Jean King, we’d probably have been a lot better served.