Rules of attraction populate Battle of the Sexes, which centers on ferocious tennis champ Billie Jean King’s triumph over misogynistic Bobby Riggs and the whole male tennis establishment in a 1973 challenge. In the process, it also deals with Billie Jean’s growing lesbian feelings and the war she faced between enlightenment and discretion. (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!)
In the film, Billie Jean (Emma Stone) is married to fellow tennis pro Larry (Austin Stowell), who supports her on her quest to shatter stereotypes and succeed. But their dynamic shifts when Billie Jean gets flirted on by hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), as expressed in a lovely, sensual scene full of dangerous possibility. Soon enough, Billie Jean—who’s only known intimacy with Larry all these years—finds herself getting jiggy with Marilyn, while a rival tennis player, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) fumes with homophobic disdain.
Larry figures out what’s going on and warns Marilyn not to get between Billie Jean and her game—back then, same-sex revelations could devastate a career like this—but later on, when Billie Jean’s not feeling well, Larry is so supportive he even offers to try and get Marilyn back by her side! Anything to get Billie Jean back on her feet so she can beat Riggs (Steve Carell), who vows to put the “show back in chauvinism.”
The film ends with Billie Jean sobbingly looking out at her husband, then at Marilyn, wondering which path will lead to the greatest gratification. A couturier played by Alan Cumming assures her that things are changing (partly thanks to her) and someday everyone will be able to be themselves and love who they want—which sounds like a 2017 imprint planted on 1973 by a screenwriter. But though that’s added, something major is left out.
The titles at the end tell us that Billie Jean divorced Larry and found lasting love with Ilana Kloss, her current partner, and that’s wonderful. But they don’t mention that in 1981, Marilyn—by then a paraplegic after a fall—outed Billie Jean with an angry alimony suit that said they’d been together for seven years and Marilyn wanted serious payback. Billie Jean ended up losing endorsements, spending tons of money in court, and becoming traumatized. I guess in painting a story of growing personal enlightenment and victory, they wanted to omit the truly icky stuff that followed. Or maybe they’re saving it for the sequel, Battle of The Same-Sexes.