Battle of the Sexes: No Love Lost, by Josh Long
Billie Jean King is an American icon. Many consider her one of history’s finest tennis players, she made great strides for the advancement of female athletes, and she was one of the first professional athletes to come out as a lesbian. She is one of only two female athletes awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You may not immediately know who Bobby Riggs is, but anyone who was around and awake during the 1970s was aware of his match with King. It was a media circus, a publicity stunt that was viewed by an estimated 90 million people worldwide. Filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have teamed up with Oscar winning writer Simon Beaufoy to bring this story to the screen – and they struggle to make it as interesting.
The film opens as Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) learns the US Lawn Tennis Association (today’s USTA) has issued a press release stating that female tournament winners will be awarded a prize one eighth of that awarded to the male players. She confronts Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), one of the men behind the decision, and threatens to go off and start her own women’s tennis league. He thinks it’s a bluff, but she makes good on it, and soon she and eight others have put together the Virginia Slims Circuit. While playing on this circuit, King meets and falls in love with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). They try to keep their relationship a secret from King’s husband Larry and the other women on the circuit.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) is a washed up tennis player dealing with a failing marriage and a gambling problem. He gets the idea of an exhibition match between himself and King, something to get him back in the limelight. She at first rejects the idea, and Riggs moves on to challenge another female player, Margaret Court. After she suffers a humiliating defeat to the 55-year old ex-athlete, King decides she’ll accept his challenge, to defeat Riggs and win back some dignity for women’s tennis.
The primary problem here is that all of the drama is sucked out. We know that King is passionate about women’s equality, but we never really get into her head about why it really matters to her, or what the stakes are. The film feels so confident in its audience’s belief of the general good of women’s liberation, that it excuses itself from showing how the alternative hurts or really affects any of the characters. Similarly, Riggs enjoys the limelight, but never seems to really feel like anything important is at stake. He clearly isn’t really invested in promoting “men’s rights” or male chauvinism; to him it’s all a show. But here, the film misses another opportunity to address an interesting note. The fact that the match means little to him, but means (ostensibly) a lot to her should be part of her struggle. His treatment of feminism as a joke should have a real effect on her, and gives her a chance to express this inherent sexual inequality. Sadly, it’s never really addressed.
I wish I could say that the filmmakers instead work to dive deep into the characters but this isn’t the case either. There is some genuine development and depth to Riggs’ character, although it fizzles a bit towards the end. The portrayal of King, on the other hand, suffers from Jeanne d’Arc syndrome. Since she fought for so many good things, the filmmakers hamstring themselves into making her too pure for this world, and thus, ultimately uninteresting. To top it off, they populate the world of the Virginia Slims Circuit with mostly nameless acolytes who seemingly have no wills, thoughts, or histories of their own. King’s lover Marilyn is more of a symbol than a person, given thirty seconds of throw away backstory and no goals or desires other than to make Billie Jean happy. Her husband Larry is permitted a few seconds of sad reflection when he realizes he’s been cuckolded, before swiftly turning around to give in and step aside so that Billie Jean can be happy. No one in her world feels like a flesh-and-blood person, which makes any and all drama therein weak and boring. It might be more excusable if these characters didn’t take up so much of the film – the bulk of the movie is dedicated to their limp drama. The events surrounding the actual “Battle of the Sexes” match probably get twenty to thirty minutes of screen time.
Add to the frustration that historically, there is a lot of other drama that might have been explored. In real life, Larry was having an affair with King’s secretary during the events of the film. There is also a popular theory that Riggs owed money to the mob, and threw the match to pay them off. With real-life drama like this just sitting on the outskirts of the story, why spend so much time on the Marilyn story, especially with no effort to develop her character?
The story of the match is a good one, played out between a larger-than-life showman and a feminist and LGBTQ icon. It’s a shame that this retelling is this blasé. Some decent performances and production design don’t save it. Still a loss in straight sets.