“Battle of the Sexes” is a fascinating glimpse at a pivotal time in American history, where the conversation about gender politics and equality took a discernible turn thanks to an unlikely catalyst: professional sports.
It features captivating and enjoyable performances from Emma Stone, Steve Carell, and a game supporting cast delivering complex and nuanced takes on the real-life figures at the heart of the world-changing real-life history.
It’s also shot in classic 35 mm, granting it a grainy authenticity that places audiences squarely in that rapidly changing place and time.
What’s it about?
In 1973, 29-year-old Billie Jean King (Stone) was already a star in the tennis world, the #1 women’s player in the world and the winner of multiple major tournaments. But off the court she was waging other battles centered on the culture of the game, and the belief among tennis event promoters that women’s tennis simply wasn’t the draw that men’s tennis was, and thus not worthy of nearly the same prize considerations.
At the same time, tennis Hall of Famer and former champion Bobby Riggs (Carell) was bored and looking for his next hustle. An unapologetic gambler and gifted showman, Riggs had love but no lasting comfort in a stable home with a loving (and wealthy) wife (Elizabeth Shue), and needed an outlet for his need for risk and excitement.
King’s crusade and Riggs’s desire to put on a show put them on a collision course, as Riggs proposes a match to prove “once and for all” the superiority of the male over the female. Once circumstances force King to accept the challenge, the event and its lead-up become a pop culture phenomenon, with Riggs throwing himself into an exaggerated chauvinist persona to hype the match and play off King’s well-known intensity.
For the TV cameras, it was simply the “feminist champion” versus the “male chauvinist pig.” But off the court and away from the cameras, the personal battles King and Riggs were waging within their own lives were far more complicated and potentially devastating to their loved ones.
With the backdrop of Title IX, Roe v. Wade, and the initial passage of the Equal Rights Amendment all serving as a backdrop, the clash of the two champions would prove to be another defining moment, and a turning point in the lives of everyone involved.
Script draws fascinating parallels
One thing “Battle of the Sexes” articulates so well is just how much King and Riggs had in common, despite how different they were in manner, expression and style.
Much of the film’s personal drama derives from the challenges each faced in their respective marriages. King, though she truly loved and treasured her husband, Larry, had long suppressed her attraction to women. Riggs, though very much in love with his wife Priscilla, simply couldn’t give up the gambling, no matter what ultimatums she put in front of him.
The spouses, on the other hand, each were conscious of the fact that they were always going to come in second to something else. The complex nature of each of these relationships and the obstacles they face and overcome create compelling subplots that inform and provide context for the primary plotline.
Stone, Carell excel
Undeniably, “Battle of the Sexes” is as enjoyable as it is thanks to the stellar work of Emma Stone and Steve Carell.
Coming off of her Oscar win for “La La Land,” it’s remarkable just how much Stone disappears into the Billie Jean King that audiences see on screen. It’s not just the haircut and the glasses – Stone adapts her physicality, channeling King’s formidable presence and intensity, even in quieter, gentler scenes.
The film and Stone also benefit from a memorable performance by Andrea Riseborough (“Birdman”), who plays Marilyn, the hairdresser with whom King comes to explore her nascent homosexuality. Their scenes together are tender, genuinely romantic and organic to the narrative.
Most importantly, they add additional tension to a situation already rife with drama, and further context for King’s actions and behavior both under the media spotlight and away from it.
Carell, on the other hand, dives into his now-trademark reservoir of character actor talent to bring to life the incorrigible, irresistibly charming huckster Bobby Riggs. Carell makes the delineation between the persona Riggs created for the “Battle” and who he really was – his gregarious nature, his competitive spirit, his tendencies toward self-absorption and his tremendous heart – all palpably clear.
Riggs, as the film and Carell portray him, isn’t a villain at all – he’s an opportunist and an excitement junkie, and he sees in King his perfect foil, someone with whom he can put on a great show while also re-inventing himself and enjoying the spotlight again.
For anyone who wasn’t old enough to see the real-life “Battle of the Sexes” play out at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 but has an interest or passion in gender politics and equality politics, the film “Battle of the Sexes” should definitely be seen.
Watching the circus come to town as its presented here is riveting stuff, not just for the personality contrasts and Riggs’ antics, but also for its poignancy in today’s world. Forty-some years may have passed, but the conversation really hasn’t changed all that much in terms of breaking glass ceilings and changing cultural perceptions.
But don’t shy away just because those issues don’t interest you. “Battle of the Sexes” works as pure entertainment, as well. It’s almost as entertaining as the real-life events were.
Battle of the Sexes
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, and Natalie Morales. Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.
Running time: 121 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.