Tennis is a great sport. On the one hand, it’s a hell of a physical challenge. And on the other, it’s a hell of a chess match. You need brains and brawn to be successful. And there’s only two of you out there (unless we’re talking doubles) while the world watches. Your flaws are on display. No helmet shields your face, no teammates for you to blame. It’s you and your opponent, and usually the better man or woman wins. For this reason, tennis has star athletes. And whether the athlete asks for it or not, the personal nature of the game makes you a character – a hero, a villain, or if you’re not enough of either, a boring character.
In Battle of the Sexes – a starring role for player/character Billie Jean King – she’s the latter. She carries all the emotional heft of a cruise ship ping pong match. And that’s only partially a knock on Emma Stone, who plays King. Try as she does to give life to a closeted lesbian uber-competitive national superstar, she can’t quite get it over the net.
It shouldn’t be hard. This movie has all the makings of a classic like A League of Their Own: a compelling lead, women’s liberation and anti-feminism, a genuinely interesting match in a genuinely interesting sport, and their wild card – LGBTQ issues.
Ah yes – the awkward fumbling lesbian scenes at the barber shop, in the hotel room, on a road trip – they seemed less like real situations between a blue collar worker and mega-national star and more like two Burger King employees experimenting on their smoke breaks. And the husband who knows what’s going on but has an emotional reaction akin to someone eating bad sushi but still going back to the same restaurant.
Then there’s the interesting character – Bobby Riggs. He’s supposed to give this some flare, right? Steve Carell playing a senior tour player who for some unknown reason besides the fact that he likes to gamble (which is hammered home aplenty) is on a crusade against women’s tennis and basically the whole female gender. He doesn’t hate women, it seems. He doesn’t need a lot of money, it seems. He’s just a zany guy with a zany idea and it comes to fruition. He’s more like Don King than anything, but the filmmakers want him to be Apollo Creed. They even have that familiar “I don’t have to train and I can sit in front of the TV because my opponent is a joke” schtick going on. But Apollo he is not. They don’t even establish him as a quality tennis player to begin with to make it seem believable that 90 million viewers would tune into the match.
A great sports movie is able to build a story around great characters, find their motivations, their challenges, and then make all of those come to light at the climactic moments. A great sports movie is not built haphazardly around the idea that LGBTQ topics are ‘trendy’ and we should make a movie about that, but sort of about this crazy tennis match. It seems like the filmmakers started the wrong way, and even if they weren’t trying to make a sports classic like Rocky, they totally missed the humanity, humor, and empowering message that movies like A League of Their Own or Million Dollar Baby deliver.
The more interesting pieces that were not really explored in the movie were how King helped start a new women’s tennis league because women were not getting fair compensation in the USLTA. And then we never get to see further down the road when King comes out as gay. So the movie went from a quasi-LGBTQ love story to a story about women’s liberation and gender discrimination, and then somewhere in between there was some tennis.