Battle of the Sexes
Review by Paul Preston
This historical Trump allegory with a better ending benefits from two excellent lead performances.
Battle of the Sexes tells the story of number one female tennis player Billie Jean King’s famous match against former Wimbledon champ and Hall of Famer Bobby Riggs. Riggs’ outright chauvinism vs. King’s intellectual feminism made the match a hot-button topic of 1973, to the point where they filled Houston’s Astrodome for the big event. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct Simon Beaufoy’s script, which is just as much about King’s complicated love life as it is about the tennis showdown. The extended look at King’s personal life, however, gives the final showdown that much more context and all the more reason to root for King.
King is played triumphantly by Emma Stone, in another winning turn after nabbing the Oscar for La La Land. Facing Riggs wasn’t Billie Jean King’s only brush with sexism, having before that struggled with equal pay for women on the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association tour and then in starting her own women’s tournament that had to put up with the constant casual sexism of the early ‘70s that was still stuck in the 1960s Mad Men caveman mindset of sexual definitions.
Riggs is knocked out of the park by Steve Carell, who could very well be on his way to another Oscar nomination. His portrayal of Riggs as a serial gambler is fascinating. He baits and goads King and the general public in a clownish parade of overt sexism yet balances the line wonderfully between authenticity and some perilous streak that makes you wonder if he’s just going as far as he’s going for the wager of it all. Watching Carell walk that line makes Riggs LIKEABLE, which on paper seems impossible.
Billie Jean King went on to become a vocal advocate for the gay community and Battle of the Sexes includes her first encounter with attraction for a woman, as she falls for hair stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). What makes the attraction even more complex is that King was married at the time (don’t be fooled by her husband’s name, Larry. It’s not that Larry King). The scenes with Stone and Riseborough strike a genuine and emotional chord.
What’s great about Battle of the Sexes is that the final third is a sports movie and it’s then I remembered – I LOVE SPORTS MOVIES! I was cheering, involved and had a stake in everything that was going on. But Little Miss Sunshine directors Faris and Dayton also take time to frame quiet moments, including a scene with King, post-match, alone in her locker room that works on all levels and also a scene with King’s husband alone in a hotel hallway that they let sit just long enough to remind you that the supporting characters are important, too, and have their own battles. Speaking of supporting characters, Bill Pullman shows up as Jack Kramer, a great name for a real sexist dummy, who ran the Lawn Tennis Association and is the catalyst for most of the King’s rebelling. Pullman is great in this role and he needs more roles of substance in quality films.
There has been talk that much of the real-life story was glossed over. For example, King and Barnett’s relationship didn’t end well, but I get why it’s not covered, this story leads up to the tennis match. You can’t top the culmination of Riggs and King’s verbal sparring. The match is the end of the movie, even as it echoes in November 8, 2016.
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Run Time: 121 Minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox