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Battle of the Sexes (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

Battle of the Sexes


Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Jessica McNamee, Natalie Morales, Martha MacIsaac, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell, Mark Harelik, Mickey Sumner, John C. McGinley, Matt Malloy, Wallace Langham, Agnes Olech, Enuka Okuma, Lewis Pullman, Cooper J. Friedman and Michael Chieffo.

Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy.

Directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 121 minutes. Rated PG-13.

It’s easy to forget, with almost 45 years of hindsight, what a big deal the tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was when it took place in 1973. After all, it was just an exhibition match. It was not an officially-sanctioned tennis event. The mismatched participants were a 55-year-old over-the-hill former tennis star against the best female tennis player in the world – 26 years his junior and in much better shape.

And yet over 30,000 people watched it live (I believe it is still the largest audience ever for a tennis match), 50 million people watched it on television in the US, and 90 million worldwide.

It wasn’t even a serious deal to Riggs, who turned it into a circus, never taking it seriously. It was a scam, a way for him to get back into the papers and on TV. It was all a show. King had no real interest in doing it. She saw it for the farce that it was, however she felt that she had the responsibility to do it for equal rights. She took the match very, very seriously.

The fact that King famously beat Riggs was rather inevitable. (Sorry for the spoiler, but come on, you knew what happened.) Looking back, it’s hard to believe anyone would have ever thought that there could be another outcome.

However, back then, things were different. The women’s movement was still in its early phases, and the idea that a woman – any woman – could beat a man was still pretty radical thinking.

What was simply a cheesy cash grab to one of the participants was of vital importance to the other. King wasn’t playing for herself. She was playing for women. All women. For Riggs, the match was a hustle. For King, it was a symbolic statement. If she lost, she would be proving everything that the sexists believed – that the best woman in the world still was not as good as a middling man. King could not allow that kind of belief to foster. That would be tragic to both women’s tennis and the Women’s Liberation movement.

Suddenly, an overblown cheesy exhibition has higher stakes, doesn’t it? The circus was just a necessary step towards sexual equality.

Battle of the Sexes does a very good job of capturing this strange-yet-vital moment in history.

Steve Carell and Emma Stone do fine jobs of playing the tennis stars. Carell, in particular, looks and acts strikingly like Riggs, though occasionally he plays the older guy as a bit too likable. Carell’s Riggs does not seem so much a male chauvinist as just a canny self-promoter who struck upon an angle. He’s a lovable fuckup, not a virulent sexist.

Stone’s role as King is much more nuanced, and she pulls it off well. At that point King was dealing with many issues that she felt responsible for and her steely determination. She became tired of the boy’s club of tennis and took some of the best women in the sport to create their own league. She felt that equality was of utmost importance. She was an early feminist, but she was also an ambassador for the sport.

Coinciding with much of this is King’s eventual realization that even though she was contentedly married, she was more attracted to women. While this is obviously a huge part of King’s story, this is the one part of the movie that feels like a screenwriter’s trick – was her sexual awakening lined up with specific plot points in this particular story?

Specifically, did King really lose to Margaret Court because she was upset that her husband found out about her lesbian lover soon before the match? Perhaps it did happen that way, only Billie and those involved know 100% for sure, but part of me wonders if these scenes of personal epiphany weren’t moved around in King’s professional timeline for maximum dramatic effect?

Which is fair game, no one ever claimed that biopics are completely faithful to the story they tell. It’s certainly not a breaking point here, just a curiosity.

Battle of the Sexes recreates the era extremely well, capturing both the feel of the time and the crazed aspects of the whole event. And to this day, the final shot is extremely moving.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: September 29, 2017.

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