It’s been said that victory has a hundred fathers but failure is an orphan, and in a way the reverse is true of true story narratives. When they suck there’s blame to go around and a million causes — the unearned creative liberties, the important points unfairly omitted, the obvious elements unnecessarily fussed over. When they’re good it seems preordained, as if God told the story and all you had to do was write it down. As if that perfect story (“The Truth”) was just sitting out there waiting to get put on film. “Jeez, why hadn’t anyone made this movie before?”
I’m happy to report that Battle of the Sexes, from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), is in the second category. Of course, good stories don’t just sit out there waiting to be told, and for as smartly hidden as the filmmakers’ craft is here, the smartest thing they do in Battle of the Sexes is resist the temptation to create easy villains.
In telling the story of Billie Jean King’s epic 1973 tilt with Bobby Riggs, an event so celebrated I remember reading about it in Sports Illustrated for Kids in the ’90s, it’d be easy to personify all of King’s opponents — sexism, homophobia, the patriarchy — as sneering hecklers, of the “girls can’t play baseball!” variety (as seen in A League of Their Own). But that’s a reductive conflict that doesn’t do justice to the reality: that structural discrimination doesn’t usually twirl a mustache (and, as pointed out in The Big Sick, most hecklers just think they’re helping).
Every character in Battle of the Sexes has depth, there isn’t a single one who’s there just to be a speed bump for the protagonists, and that begins with its remarkably nuanced portrayal of Bobby Riggs. Battle introduces Steve Carell’s Riggs with a slow zoom shot, from the streets of New York into Riggs’ highrise office, one cube embedded within a million more identical cubes within a vast metropolis of cubes. We never find out what exactly Riggs was doing up there in that office (boring work stuff, who cares?), but the point is that this guy fears one thing above all else: anonymity, irrelevance.
Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King, meanwhile, opens the film taking a congratulatory phone call from Richard Nixon, only to find out that the head of the big tennis association, Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman), is only offering the women players an eighth of what the men are making. King organizes a boycott, which leads to the creation of the Virginia Slims women’s tour, a plucky start-up that King’s agent, Gladys Heldman (played charmingly by a silver-streaked Sarah Silverman, in a very Debi Mazar-esque role) tries to keep together with spit and duct tape like a protective house mom.
Kramer is the film’s real villain, and by casting Pullman — charming and full of gravitas even when he’s being a prick — it makes a strong (and trenchant) statement that deeds count more than words, that the sheen of “respectability” is usually your enemy, not your friend. Evil isn’t a fire-breathing hater, it’s a smiling white man in a suit trying to convince you that he’s just the messenger. Discrimination is more assumption than insult. As Stone’s King tells Kramer, “Bobby’s just a clown. With you it’s for real.”
As she fights to squeeze respect from a dubious public, King is discovering that she’s not only a woman in a man’s world, but a lesbian. Her burgeoning love affair with her hair dresser (played by Andrea Riseborough) is so sweet and natural, that it manages to be touching, sexy, and life-affirming at the same time.
Here again, what makes Battle of the Sexes so special is that it doesn’t cheapen King’s adversity by personifying it in a cheesy villain. King is married at the time, to a comically handsome, square-jawed Aryan played by Austin Stowe. And when he finds out she’s been cheating on him with the hairdresser, he doesn’t scream or call her names or punch a mirror, he just acts extra nice while looking like he’s had the wind knocked out of him, tenderly icing King’s knees and dutifully putting her career before himself. Sometimes being yourself means hurting good people, that’s why it’s so hard. The idea that everyone who stands in the way of our dreams is some hater is just bullshit we feed ourselves to feel good.
Perhaps more could’ve been done with Riggs, and the notion that disingenuously whipping up people’s worst impulses for fun and profit can eventually take its toll, even when you think it’s just a big joke (irony poisoning, we now call it). But Carell is so magnificent at playing the melancholic huckster that the film doesn’t need to belabor the point. Likewise, I wish the film would’ve incorporated more stock footage (something I pretty much always say about biopics/based on true events movies), but the tennis footage works surprisingly well. I was initially skeptical of one of Hollywood’s most willowy, slightly built actresses playing a professional athlete, but whatever combination of personal training, body doubles, and movie magic Battle of the Sexes uses works. And the stock clips it does use, like Howard Cosell calling the match, saying that if Billie Jean King “grew her hair and took off the glasses, she could have a future as a movie star” really give a flavor of the casual sexism of the era.
For the most part though, Battle of the Sexes proves that making a good movie out of a true story isn’t about tricks or flashy filmmaking or even innovative storytelling. It’s about treating every character in it as an individual, someone with independent thoughts and goals who deserves respect.