In May 1973, Bobby Riggs challenged Margaret Court to a tennis match. Riggs was 55 and had been retired for 22 years. Margaret Court was 30 and the number-one ranked female player in the world. Riggs smashed Court, beating her 6-2 in game one and 6-1 in game 2.
It was the height of the women’s liberation movement, and issues of gender equality dominated the popular discourse. Riggs, an inveterate hustler plagued by gambling debts, hoped to make a killing by promoting the match as a “battle of the sexes”—the final word in athletic superiority. His win over Court tilted the conversation; Time magazine featured Riggs on its cover.
Later that year, in a lavish ceremony broadcast on ABC from the Houston Astrodome, Riggs lost to Billie Jean King, the number-two female player.
One wonders why Riggs beat Court so handily but lost to King. Or exactly whether a tennis match has much to do with gender equality at all. Battle of the Sexes, the new movie about the match, doesn’t know the answers. It’s a movie about tennis and gender that has little insight into either.
That doesn’t mean it’s without merit. Using zoom lenses and symmetrical framing, the movie goes out of its way to mimic period-appropriate pop culture. And while conflating sex and gender is inherently problematic, the movie’s subplot about King and her burgeoning relationship with another woman is nicely drawn.
But even beyond the absurdity of Alan Cumming’s gay sage and the bizarrely inert climactic matchup, something is off about this breezy trifle. In the end, Battle of the Sexes is Riggs’s movie—it’s driven by his dramatic arc and, in the end, his redemption is more effective than King’s. Its eyes fixated on spectacle, Battle of the Sexes loses sight of the point.
Battle of the Sexes. Directed Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, and Sarah Silverman. Opens in Kansas City September 29, 2017.