Film Review: Battle of the Sexes

by Carrie Kahn on September 22, 2017

Stone and Carell serve up a winner in still timely ’70s tennis drama      

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) play to the crowd at a press conference preceding the Battle of the Sexes.

Opening nearly 44 years to the day after the famous tennis match it’s named after, Battle of the Sexes chronicles the much publicized and widely watched (90 million viewers tuned in worldwide) 1973 match between then 29-year-old women’s champion Billie Jean King and former men’s champion 55-year-old Bobby Riggs. Billed as the ultimate Battle of the Sexes, the match became much more than just an exhibition game; it took on a life of its own, and, after King’s resounding defeat of Riggs, it became a touchstone for the growing women’s equality movement of the early 1970s. Husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours; Slumdog Millionaire) wonderfully capture the zeitgeist of the period down to the smallest details, and have assembled a stellar cast to bring this often infuriating but always engaging true story to life.

The film, of course, wouldn’t even come close to succeeding if its leads hadn’t been well cast, but fortunately that’s not the case here. Steve Carell is an absolute dead-ringer for Bobby Riggs, and, aside from that remarkable physical resemblance, Carell’s performance is notable for the high-octane, slightly manic energy he brings to it. Carell has always done well playing characters whose bravado masks deeper insecurities and doubts, and that skill serves Carell well here, as he plays a man whose gambling addiction threatens his marriage (to second wife Priscilla, played with steely resolve by Elisabeth Shue) at the same time he has to face the fact that his successes are mostly behind him.

As excellent as Carell is, though, in true Battle of the Sexes fashion, the film ultimately belongs to Emma Stone, whose nuanced and fully formed turn as Billie Jean contains such multitudes of emotional and psychological depth that Stone is no doubt a shoo in for another Oscar nomination this year. The film, in fact, is less a narrative about a specific sporting event and more a portrait of a woman’s coming into her own, in the face of rampant sexism, as well as pervasive homophobia. The film follows Billie Jean as she fights for equal pay in tournament prize money; she leaves the established, coed US Lawn and Tennis Association (USLTA) — where the women winners were typically paid eight times less than the men — and forms the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), bringing along a coterie of some of the country’s best female tennis players.

Billie Jean (Emma Stone, l.) falls for team hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).

The film also focuses on the fact that Billie Jean, during the height of her career, was a closeted lesbian, at a time when her outing could have caused her professional ruin. Though married to a man (the kind and supportive Ken Doll-esque Larry (Austin Stowell)), Billie Jean falls hard for team hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). On top of the immense pressure of badly wanting to beat the grandstanding Bobby when he challenges her to the high stakes match (the winner would receive $100,000), Billie Jean has the added stress of having to conceal a fundamental part of who she is. 

What the movie succeeds most at, then, is its portrayal of the deep-seated culture of chauvinism, sexism, and homophobia of the times, especially in the professional sports arena. Although Bobby Riggs famously played up his male chauvinist persona (here, as in real life, he gifts Billie Jean a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop at the start of the match; she gives him a live pig), the treatment Billie Jean and the other female players received from male players, tennis fans, and those on the business end of the sport was far worse, and much less easy to laugh off.

Aside from the smaller purses the female champions received, the women were routinely subjected to demeaning and condescending treatment from reporters (“You’re cuter than the men,” a radio host tells them, laughing) and others on an almost daily basis, and the film dramatizes this mistreatment to great effect. Actual footage of Howard Cosell proclaiming on air about Billie Jean that “if she took her glasses off and grew her hair, she’d be ready for a Hollywood screen test,” is appalling, as is the way Cosell aggressively drapes his arm over a clearly uncomfortable Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), who serves as the female commentator for the event. The women are constantly being referred to as “girls” or “little lady,” and told that their game isn’t as exciting as that of the men.

The circus-like beginning of the infamous match.

Stone has a terrific scene with Bill Pullman, who plays USLTA promoter and tennis commentator Jack Kramer, in which she asks him not to moderate the Battle of the Sexes match because he doesn’t respect women, and she’s right; his contempt is palpable. Pullman makes for an especially unlikable and smarmy villain, and Stone’s take down of him is just one of the film’s many applause worthy scenes.

And Sarah Silverman steals nearly every scene she’s in as Gladys, the WTA publicist, who secures the women’s tour lucrative sponsorship from Virginia Slims cigarettes. Besides the obvious irony of a cigarette company sponsoring an athletic event, of course, the greater irony of that deal may be the Virginia Slims slogan, which was plastered all over signage at the women’s tournaments: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Viewing this film in light of that slogan, as we watch how a strong woman like Billie Jean is condescended to and demeaned by men in positions of power, only to gloriously defeat the showboating Bobby, it becomes almost impossible not to think of last November’s election with heavy hearts. “Women are not some kind of a joke,” Billie Jean says after she wins the match. The camera pans to someone in crowd holding a “Billie Jean for President” sign, and we feel the bittersweet tears on our cheeks. We may have come a long way, baby, but, nearly 45 years later, we still have so far to go.

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Battle of the Sexes opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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