Battle of the Sexes Casts a Queer Lens on a Standard Biopic

Battle of the Sexes

Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris (Directors), Pamela Martin (editor), Linus Sandgren (cinematography), Simon Beaufoy (screenwriter)
Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming (cast)
September 22, 2017 (USA)

Billie Jean King was, and is, an extraordinary woman. She was a World Number One in the sport of women’s tennis, and won thirty-nine Grand Slam titles, twelve of those in singles. She helped the US win seven Fed Cups. She’s been a fierce advocate for women in (and out of) sports, and is a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. There’s a lot to her life, is what I’m saying, and it’s a lot to distill down to one film.

The advertising for Battle of the Sexes made me concerned that the film would try, though. And, if you’ve heard of Billie Jean King, you might already know Battle of the Sexes’ final act: retired tennis star and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs faces off against Billie Jean King in the most well-attended match of the time. It’s almost too good to be true, a moment made to be memorialized in a film. But while biopics offer the opportunity to delve deep into a person’s character, they can easily become pat retreads of familiar plot points and story beats—when a character is queer, those predictions become grim and tragic. Add sports to the mix and dramatic license is almost irresistible.

Battle of the Sexes, Cloud Eight Films, 2017

Instead, Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay has a light, gentle touch, creating real people with emotional intelligence out of characters that could easily have become caricatures: the feminist lesbian athlete, the washed up men’s tennis star, the homophobic rival, the loyal husband. The through-line of Battle of the Sexes is Billie Jean King’s (Emma Stone) resolve to uplift those around her, and the film wants show you why this famous match was a part of that mission, beyond the media spectacle.

Battle of the Sexes begins with an argument over prize money between Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), and King. Kramer is a sports promoter and retired tennis player, Heldman the founder of World Tennis Magazine, and King is a major draw for fans. The inequity in the prizes lead King and Heldman to create the Women’s Tennis Association, offering an alternative to the National Tennis League. Already, a clear picture of King begins to emerge: she recognizes that her position as the number one women’s ranked player gives her leverage to help out all the other women in the sport. King recruits other top players for their own round of tournaments, and Heldman secures them a sponsorship. All of this, of course, rankles the hell out of the men of establishment tennis, who kick the women out of the league (and thus lock them out of more prize money).

This is context, and the directors give it to us without too many expository drops: we’re in the office where King squares off against the tournament directors, and we’re in the diner where the women players learn that they might just make some money as part of their protest. If you’re coming into this film blind to the history of the sport, it’s easy to catch up to what’s happening (mainly, sexism).

Parallel to the rise of the WTA, we learn about Bobby Riggs’ retirement: he’s a compulsive gambler, a father, and still pretty great at tennis despite being kind of  sad sack. Steve Carell is maybe too likable as Bobby Riggs—while the film doesn’t give his arc equal weight to King’s (nor should it), it does struggle a bit with exactly how we should feel about his antics. Riggs is a hustler, whose hustle is seriously damaging his interpersonal relationships (not to mention threatening women’s tennis), but he’s having fun with his pals! He doesn’t really quite mean all that sexism. To soften him for the audience, there’s a largely unnecessary plotline with his son that should have been either cut entirely or fleshed out.

But the depth that Battle of the Sexes gives to Riggs feels almost necessary so that King can shine brighter. Without the knowledge that his gross sexism was mostly an act, that he was supported by a strong wife, that he was in it for the hustle, King accepting his challenge would feel inexplicable when contrasted with what we’re shown of her character. She’s no fool, after all, and she’s the best she is at what she does.

A soft touch benefits the film in other respects: Billie Jean King’s struggle with her sexuality is treated with a subtly that keeps it from becoming a spectacle to gawk at. Her relationship with hair dresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) is charming and natural, and Stone imbues King with a recognizable mix of queer desire and tentativeness—her lip biting and awkward laughter are perfect. Directors Dayton & Faris don’t understate their sexual attraction either, including draping their romance in beautiful lighting despite most of their trysts happening in hotels around the country. Riseborough plays Marilyn with a lazy sort of rambling charm; she’s the experienced one, ready for the inevitable emotional fallout that comes from being a woman’s first woman lover. It’s easy to see why Billie Jean King would be intrigued, and Stone creates a character that’s easy to love.

What’s especially nice about their romance is that it’s given room to breathe. It’s not shoved only into locked hotel rooms, and it’s not only ambivalence about forbidden sexuality. They get to enjoy it, which feels somewhat extraordinary in what’s essentially a period piece. While the ever-present danger of discovery may be underplayed for a straight audience, when viewed through a queer lens it hangs quietly over everything. But there’s still joy there, and pleasure in watching the unfurling of Billie Jean King’s assured sense of self to encompass this new beautiful thing.

The relative emotional maturity feels almost too subtle in a sports biopic, the kind of film that could have easily used the excuse of dramatic license to raise the stakes. But Margaret Court, though she’s shot and lit like a classic film villain, isn’t full of schemes to out King or humiliate her, despite her homophobia. And King’s husband Larry understands Billie Jean maybe more than she (in the film) understands herself. (His acceptance of her lesbianism and her infidelity might strain credulity, but he stood by her in real life as well). The tension is set at an incredibly human scale. There are no slammed doors or shouting when someone leaves, just the sinking realization that priorities are not always romantic.

The lack of bombast makes the climax of King’s match against Riggs in the Houston Astrodome even more of spectacle. We see it filtered via television screens across the country. The tennis we see is clean and easy to follow, even for viewers who might not be familiar with the sport.

But what Battle of the Sexes wants to focus on during those tense sporting moments isn’t just King’s serve. It wants to show you how many people this match touched. It also manages to make the act of watching people watch tennis on television enthralling. There’s something amazingly satisfying about seeing the camera pan over the sad, pinched faces of old white men, while women in the background come to focus, sharing in Billie Jean’s triumphs on the court even as the country clubbers around them despair. These background women, a diverse bunch, have been laid as groundwork through the whole film. We’ve seen audiences, fans, fellows watching these matches, and now we get to see their reactions to the journey we’ve also been watching. It’s cathartic.

King’s story is one where she works to uplift others: she creates the WTA to push for equal pay; she uses her match with Riggs to get Rosie Casalas (Natalie Morales) a commentator gig. But the film generously shares with us the people in King’s life who work to uplift her, too. Battle of the Sexes is a very queer story, and some of the most buoying moments for me were the interactions between King and the WTA’s clothier, Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling (Alan Cumming). It resonated, despite the haunting gap in generations of queer people that lingers for many folks my age. So in a way, this film gives us a queer mentor beyond the statistics sheet and the sports in Billie Jean King—someone who saw a chance to help and took it.

This film is great if you want to watch white men feel defeated in the face of a woman’s determination, or if you want a low-key lesbian romance you can watch with your mother. And if you’re not a fan of women’s tennis yet, you might be after this.

Kat Overland

Kat Overland

Small press editor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. She's a millennial, Latina, exhausted, and can often be spotted casually cosplaying America Chavez and complaining.