A man and woman at the top of their respective games, let their balls do the talking in ‘Battle of the Sexes’. In the wake of the sexual revolution and the rise of the women’s movement, the 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-men’s-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was billed as the BATTLE OF THE SEXES and became one of the most watched televised sports events of all time, reaching 90 million viewers around the world. As the rivalry between King and Riggs kicked into high gear, off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles. The fiercely private King was not only championing for equality, but also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, as her friendship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) developed. And Riggs, one of the first self-made media-age celebrities, wrestled with his gambling demons, at the expense of his family and wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Together, Billie and Bobby served up a cultural spectacle that resonated far beyond the tennis court, sparking discussions in bedrooms. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is directed by the husband and wife duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.
Sports can serve as a chess piece of sorts in the bigger battles that shape and advance our society. While these are just games of friendly competition, there’s no debate to the undercurrent of political conversation that is taking place beneath the stage of smiles and respectable handshakes. Most notably from history are games like the 1980 Hockey Winter Olympic games, which staged the ultimate underdog Americans defeating the Russians at the heart of the cold war, Jackie Robinson stepping onto the field for his first major league game, and of course Billie Jean King fighting for women’s equality in a sport that up until then had been dominated monetarily by males. We point to these chapters in history as the building blocks for the much greater picture in all of its hurdles, and that is what gives a film like ‘Battle of the Sexes’ its stroke of importance against the litter of sports biopics. Despite the mostly light-hearted atmosphere being displayed here, there’s very much a struggle for power, and King herself feels like the brunt of frustration for a generation of males not quite ready to give over their dominance just yet.
From a narrative perspective, the film is so much more than just its title event, which is so miniscule in the grand scale of what is really going on in this movie. The script that is written by Simon Beaufoy takes us through these two prominent figures of their sport and chooses to focus and peel away at the human side to each of their respective lives, building up the backstory prominently to feed into the main course later on. In Billie Jean, we meet a woman on the verge of her sexual awakening, feeling love for the first time in the clutches of a woman and a union between them that by all means was looked upon in shame not only by the sport but also by its fans. On top of this, King’s real battle takes place off the court with the head of the tennis organization, Jack Kramer (Played by Bill Pullman), and his sexist stance on refusing to grant woman the kind of equality that they have fought so hard for with increasing ratings. On the parralel, Riggs is surprisingly not half of the antagonist that the film tries so desperately to shadow him as. Just as King’s life is taking a turn of revolution, Riggs is down and out with an addiction to gambling that has cost him nearly everything that he loves. The people in his life view him as a joke, and because of such, I felt great empathy towards this character and how this big name battle is every bit important to restoring his name as it is to building the legacy of King’s. Because the film builds these two characters equally, it means that much more when their tug-of-war comes to fruition later on, and the heartbreak of how only one of them can walk away as the winner, and that is riveting storytelling at its finest.
Another prominent perspective in this film is the impeccable artistic pageantry during the disco ages that doesn’t feel like it’s being used as an artificial gimmick. So much of the set designs and cinema scope with color palates in the film feel like they are patiently distributed and wait for the film to come to them instead of vice versa. Soundtrack is a big example of this, limiting the uses of top 40 favorites into the film, and instead opting for B-side bullets that never try hard to timestamp and hammer home the idea of this particular decade. The fashion trends rarely feel like anything that you can point to and laugh at, and it gives the entire production a kind of earnest respect that doesn’t feel necessary in exploiting it for its own cheap giggles or observations. The camera work stays fairly close for some conversation pieces, particularly with that of King when her usually tough exterior comes crumbling down at the hands of a woman who she falls smitten for instantaneously. The inclusion of neon colors splashing particularly in that of bar setting scenes feel like they play into Billie’s inside desire just burning to come out, feeding into the passion between them that the film unabashedly buys into. Even the television presentational value caters as well to this consistent grip for authenticity that the film carries on with, steadying the broadcasts with intentionally slow editing and pacing that was very much a staple of 70’s broadcasts. It all feeds into two hours of seamless visual merit that keeps the film firmly grounded in its roots, bringing to life the sunshine backdrops of the California coast that reflect the flower generation in all of its colorful displays for our own personal eye candy.
As for performances, there is no limits of familiar faces who pop up on screen to steal a scene or two in this film with no shortage of meaningful roles. Emma Stone refuses to rest on her Oscar win last March, breathing in King with precision in feminine heroism and dedication to appearance that immerses her fully into this role. Stone again has several moments of possible Oscar clips here as well, and her fiery finesse propels her to the front of the line to retain her trophy. Carell might give my single favorite performance from him to date as Riggs. Steve juggles two different Bobby’s to their respective importance with the script; one in front of the camera and one off of the camera, and they are anything but one and the same. Bobby is wise enough as a business man to know that every good match needs a villain that the people (in this case the women) can grit their teeth at, and his charismatic stroke of shovanism knows no bounds. It’s a difficult thing to balance these two opposite sides under the same helm, but Carell’s integral exuberance keeps them two equally compelling characters for the price of one. In addition to these two, there’s notable turns from veterans like Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, and the lady who constantly keeps the film’s tonal comedy in the palm of her hands; Sarah Silverman. This trio round out a collective ensemble that rival any other film this year, not just in big name quality, but in how much energetic material there is to go around for everyone to take a turn.
My problems are quite limited with this film and only come down to one or two sparingly random instances that did little damage. For one, the affair storyline with King and Marilyn really only focus on them and ignore almost entirely the perspective from King’s husband until it is absolutely necessary to include him. Doing this makes where it is going predictable for the viewers who don’t know everything about King, and I wish the film did a little more to leave him with a lasting impression upon us. My other problem is with the actual Battle of the Sexes, which takes place in the final twenty minutes of the film. It’s hard enough to build the dramatic effect in this game if you know what happened, but I feel like Dayton and Faris could’ve done a slightly better job at the unfolding atmosphere of male uneasiness that was present in the stadium. For the most part, the game breezes by, focusing too often on wide television angles, and less from a player perspective inside the physicality of it all. It just kind of makes the final scenes fizzle out like a boxing match that we were built up for from all of the pregame talking, but then disappointed once it actually happened.
THE VERDICT – Dayton and Faris serve up yet another crowd pleasing time capsule of 70’s euphoria that moves us with two endearing performances by Stone and Carell at the top of the bill. Like our own world that still requires lots of growing for our own narrow-minded, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ does give us some semblance of hope for how far we’ve come, and the kind of stage that only sports can provide in diving into that valuable social commentary. The ball stays inbounds for two hours of breezy emotional substance that invites us to laugh and love with these characters.