Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Battle of the Sexes - Biopics (and psychoanalysis) bring life to ghosts

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell

Where were you in 1973 when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome?  I was where many other Americans were, watching it on TV.  Visually it was odd.  The Astrodome was huge and the tennis court was small.  This was not a tennis venue.  Even 13 year old me could tell that.  And what I remember most – but what was not depicted in the movie – was that Bobby Riggs (what thirteen year old had heard of Bobby Riggs) intentionally dumped his first serve into the net to express his disdain for Billie Jean King.  I hated him for that.  Billie Jean King was cool – I liked watching her play on TV.  Plus, you should always respect your opponent.  And when it became apparent to me early on that Billie Jean was going to win, I kind of thought Bobby deserved to lose – but perhaps more importantly I thought that he wasn’t in BJK’s class (and she did take him apart).  It felt like a foregone conclusion that she would win.

The movie Battle of the Sexes manages to make that foregone conclusion – I did watch it on TV and knew who was going to win – not seem so foregone at all.  Billie Jean King is played by Emma Stone.  Emma Stone brings to life a person who is confident, but not brash, intense while still being human – in a word, she captures some very important aspects of BJK.  That said, she is not BJK any more than Will Smith was Ali.  The subjects of biopics – even very good ones – I Walked the Line, Ray, Julia and me, and we also watched Jackie this weekend – are always, not just to my eye but certainly to my eye – more beautiful than the very beautiful actors who portray them.  Don’t get me wrong – Joaquin Phoenix is much prettier than Johnny Cash could ever hope to be.  Johnny Cash is not, to my eye, an attractive man, but he is beautiful because of – I don’t know what – his inner beauty?  My attachment to the way he sits behind that pock marked face and practically dares you not to love him, sometimes in spite of himself can’t be topped by the appreciation of a prettier boy trying to do the same thing.  If you want to see how beauty is not skin deep, watch a biopic and then remember the person being depicted.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs
In the best biopics, as Emma Stone does here and as Smith did with Ali, the actor who portrays someone we know well captures essential qualities of the person but doesn’t do an impression: they don’t mimic their subject.  They become the character.  I think, then, the irony is that no one can play us better than we play ourselves.  One of the reasons that we want to see a biopic like this is that we want to be in touch with the person who is being depicted.  We get instead a ghost of the person that we know – a representation.  And, at least in the case of this movie, but I think more generally, we get to know that person in a whole new way.  We get to know them intimately.  This is, I suppose, the way that we get to know our parents in the process of going through a psychoanalysis.  We remember aspects of important early figures, and in so far as, even if they aren’t like those figures, we imagine others – in particular our analyst (though I think this happens all the time with, for instance, our spouses) reminds us of aspects of them, and the task is to actually discover them (both our parents and/or other early caregivers and our analyst and/or spouse) in other ways that they in fact were or are is a tremendous achievement.  OK, that was a psychoanalytically determined and dense sentence.  Let me take a paragraph to unpack it (if you understood it as written, just skip the next paragraph).

Just as Billie Jean King – someone that I “knew” from watching her on T.V. – is both someone that I am (weirdly but I hope not creepily) attached to and that I remember, but is now a ghost – someone from my past that I might compare to current tennis players, so my mother, who is someone I am genuinely and deeply attached to and is someone that I “knew” from a particular perspective – as her son – actually as her eldest son who had the particular attributes that I have – I have internalized a version of her – or more precisely a version of her in relationship to me – and this is a ghost that I carry with me and compare to people in my current life.  I may use the feel of that relationship to anticipate the rhythm of those current relationships in my life, occluding in the process both my memory of my mother and my ability to perceive the other in their own right (I make assumptions about my spouse and my analyst based on what has gone before and what I have learned to anticipate in intimate relationships).  In a word, I project – or imagine – that they fit that template more completely than they actually do because there are feelings – for instance of attachment – that tap into the template, the ghost, that I have of my mother.  I transfer onto my spouse feelings that I have had towards my mother and my analyst and the technical term for that is transference.

So the Billie Jean King that I didn’t know – the one who left the women’s tennis circuit and started her own because Jack Kramer, who ran both the men’s and women’s tennis circuits and was the real bad guy in this movie, wanted to pay a small fraction of the prize money to women that he was paying to men even though the women were putting the same numbers of fans into seats is like the person my mother was when she was off at work – someone I didn’t know.  But she is also like, when I see her in this new movie, the person my spouse or analyst actually is – someone with whom I have a much more complicated relationship and about whom I know a great deal more than I knew about my mother as a child.  This Billie Jean King, for instance, is married to a man that I took an immediate dislike to onscreen because he just looked too perfect – like the quarterback for the football team who models on the side – but he turns out to be a prince of a guy.  She is married to a man who understands that tennis is her first love and he is a sideshow – and somehow he is OK with that: really OK with that.  He is still able to love BJK despite her inability to know and connect with him in the way that he wants to with her.  So when BJK has an affair with a woman, rather than being threatened by that, this man connects with and supports her lover.  Wow.  But I diverted myself.

The BJK that I didn’t know, the one who was real and not just bouncing around on the court destroying women players (and one man), was struggling to discover her sexuality.  She was struggling to discover what it meant to be a woman – and a woman jock.  How do you engage in both of those identities simultaneously?  Jack Kramer maintained it couldn’t be done.  He firmly believed that she would fold in the match with Riggs because she was a woman and couldn’t bring her “A” game when it really mattered.  She would defer.

There is interesting data to support that.  Girls tend to be competitive with guys in the classroom until about junior high school.  Then they start deferring to the guys.  The reasons for this are complex and socially based.  Single sex education – as in the seven sisters colleges and some Catholic school traditions – makes sense for women in a way that it doesn’t for men, where that tends to be exclusionary for a privileged group rather than providing a base for a group that needs it.  What BJK did was to found a women’s league – one that had ironic corporate sponsorship from Virginia Slims – the cigarette brand – and it was a league where the players sold tickets and greeted fans as they arrived at the venues. 

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs is played wonderfully by Steve Carell (and the biopic issues of attachment to him don’t play in – I was angry at a guy I saw once in the tiny corner of a small screen taking in a very big space).  He was leading a childlike existence, doing nothing for his rich father in law’s company, playing delightfully with his son, and making outrageous bets on himself in acts of tennis wackiness, though probably on lots of other things as well, all of which his very rich wife did not approve of.  Riggs turns out, then, to be a clown.  He is not so much a chauvinist as clueless – and both pitiable and oddly loveable.  But he is a good tennis player.  The chapter that was unknown to me was that, before he beat BJK, he beat Margaret Court, her nemesis and the person who had passed her to be number one in the world.  The outcome of the match between Riggs and King was hardly a foregone conclusion.

What the picture portrays in microcosm is the symbolic nature of the event for the nation in the context of the life of an individual and her battles with figures in the establishment.  The tennis match, as silly as it was, marked a shift in the consciousness of the country.  Rosie the Riveter, who had picked up her rivet gun to build the tanks that won the second world war, had put that down to welcome back the GIs who drove them and walked beside them and she had (here I am painting with a very broad brush) raised her boys and girls at home on her own.  Her daughters were intrigued by the possibilities of wielding that riveting gun.  The strident, first generation or wave of feminism was here.  This game foreshadowed for my 13 year old self what would become a lifelong adjustment process in the way that I would come to see women, an adjustment process that has been occurring within me and around me ever since and which continues to shift and change both for me but also for society.  It was interesting to go back to a formative moment, one that, at the time, I did not know was formative, and to get a better sense of the complex narrative that was at the heart of it.  I discovered that it was not simply a weird sideshow but something that drew as large an audience as it did because of what it actually was.  This bears an eerie resemblance to the revisiting of our childhoods that we do as part of the analytic process.  We revisit with our adult selves a time in life when we had a very narrow vision of what was occurring and we discover that a lot more was going on both around us and within ourselves than we could have known at the time.  

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