Seeing BATTLE OF THE SEXES with the Next Generation

Battle 1

Ed’s and my thorough enjoyment of the movie “Battle of the Sexes” was both enhanced and tempered by the group of preteen girls the theater’s reserved seating placed to my right.  Tempered because of the above average distractions I have come to expect from underage movie patrons (especially when in groups, especially in movies for grown-ups), but also enhanced because of what these distractions communicated about how this film with adult takes on sexism and sexuality might be resonating with young girls.

For a perfect review of “Battle of the Sexes” go no further than Manohola Dargis’ in the NYTimes, whose opening line (“Every so often an exceptionally capable woman has to prove her worth by competing against a clown.”) juicily encapsulates not only the plot of the movie’s take on Billie Jean King and Bobby Rigg’s epic 1973 tennis exhibition match, but also the unwelcome additional weight and resonance recent electoral history has monstrously bestowed on “Battle of the Sexes” in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated (and I presume would not have wished for) during the long years of writing, and preparing before shooting the movie in 2016.

I went in expecting and getting an enjoyable and smart comedy/drama with some great actors (Yeah! Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Andrea Riseborough), but was happily surprised by just how many other great actors doing great acting filled out the ensemble.  Hello, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, and (Yeah!) Alan Cumming!  Surprise, Fred Armisen! Elisabeth Shue, I didn’t recognize you!  Nice to be introduced to you, Austin Stowell, perfectly cast as Billie Jean’s husband Larry.  Oh look, that guy playing Steve Carrell’s son looks like he could be Bill Pullman’s son; oh, it is Bill Pullman’s son Lewis!  I also was very taken with how Linus Sandgren’s cinematography perfectly evoked a 1970s movie look; and appreciated the strong use of music, not just Nicholas Britell’s (Moonlight) fine score, but the highly effective use of 1970’s pop classics like Apollo 100’s “Joy” and (most sizzlingly, seductively) Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”.

Joy – Apollo 100

An old man, fuddy duddy notion of “what are 9 or 10 year old girls doing in a movie with themes of sexuality and lesbianism” did hypocritically enter my mind before I reminded myself that this was not even an R rated but a PG-13 rated movie (surely an adult chaperone was seated somewhere down the row, I didn’t crane my neck to see); and I myself had seen even more eyebrow-raisingly adult movies at that or near their age.  And I turned out just … well, I turned out fine enough.


But I had reason to be concerned about how the movie’s subtle, grown up depiction of lesbianism would go over with my young seat-neighbors (mild spoilers ensue from here on).  The scene where Billie Jean first meets and is given a hair cut by her future lover Marilyn Barnett crackles with sexual tension, as filmed with sensual close-ups and discombobulating editing.  The adults in the audience all held their breaths, spellbound. But the kids to my right kept merrily crackling their popcorn and rustling their candies, the rich import of the scene apparently going over their heads.

Which made me worried about how the kids would react to the inevitable unmistakable love scenes.  Pg-13 the movie may be, so nudity was only implied but not shown, yet the two female leads were undeniably making love.  The fact that I can remember no candy rustling or seat shifting (or worse, some vocal “eww” or giggle) attests to the movie going maturity my young neighbors ultimately displayed.

Crimson and Clover – Tommy James and the Shondells

The love story and the story of Billie Jean coming to terms with her homosexuality is at least as important, if not even more so, than the famous tennis match and its symbolic but also very real impact on women’s equality in “Battle of the Sexes”.  Credit evidently goes to the directors, married couple Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, for bringing greater weight to that aspect of the story.  Again, unforeseen current affairs add thematic heft to the depiction of Margaret Court, still spouting homophobic venom 40 years later regarding Australia’s marriage equality referendum.  But greater resonance and subtle complexity is mined depicting the response of Billie Jean’s husband Larry King (no, not the suspenders guy) to the revelation of his wife’s homosexual infidelity.   I remember how the homosexual/heterosexual love triangle in the movie “Cabaret” first introduced me as a child to the concepts of homosexuality and especially bisexuality.  I was then around the same age of the girls sitting to my right.  But I doubt that this film would be their introduction to the realities of homo- and bisexuality.  I assume that for most of today’s American children, these concepts come to them like so many other everyday facts of life, before they can even remember when they first learned about such things.  So different from earlier generations like mine, for whom these notions were dark secrets that were introduced, usually with damagingly negative connotations, late into our childhoods or adolescence, or reached our own consciousness earlier, alone, in feelings rising unbidden, before we understood what they meant, because the culture around us conspired to keep certain truths hidden and taboo.

So, from the unremarkable responses to the same sex aspect of “Battle of the Sexes” I hopefully assume my young seat mates had a refreshingly blasé attitude toward it.  Surely the greatest excitement was elicited by the titular tennis match.  The girl to my right was leaning forward, her fists pressed against both cheeks in rapt attention during those final volleys.  And when Billie Jean landed that final match point my young neighbor clapped rapidly and exclaimed “Yes!” with uncontainable glee.

So she might have been puzzled to see Emma Stone just a few minutes later, alone in the locker room, in full close-up, despondently sobbing.  “Why is she crying?” one of the girls to my right asked another.  The movie offered these children no words to explain why, after such success, this woman, who felt the pressure of the world on her shoulders, would dissolve in disconsolate tears.  That a young girl might break the movie code of conduct and ask that question out loud at that time was understandable.  But how does one answer it without the suggestion that one can’t fully understand until one is older?

And then it was my turn to make a distracting sound.  Soon after the locker room crying jag, Alan Cumming, who plays a gay dress designer working with Billie Jean King, pulls Emma Stone into a hug and tells her that today she has changed the world.  He also says – and I may be paraphrasing now – “Not today, but one day our love will be free”.  And I let out a gasping sob.  My young neighbor’s head turned toward me in a whiplash of surprise. “What’s wrong with him?  Why is he crying?” I imagine her thinking.

Oh child, I was only a little younger than you when the events this movie depicts occurred. And I am a queer man who lived through the ensuing decades.  Decades that for people like me weigh especially heavy in every syllable of that sentence Alan Cumming just recited so beautifully: “One day our love will be free”.


Crimson and Clover – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

(this version is from the 1980s and not used in the movie, but I think it’s only appropriate we listen to a woman singing “I think I could love her”, right?)

Battle 2




About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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