Battle of the Sexes portrays one of the most significant events for gender equality that took place in the seventies, the tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Even though I was only two at the time, that moment was legendary and I’ve heard the story many times. When I watched the trailer, I knew that I had to see this film, had to get the opportunity to see this moment in time in action, even if fictionalized. It was perfectly cast, brilliantly acted and an insightful view of this impactful battle.
The film picks up with Billie Jean King as the world’s female tennis champion at age 29. She celebrates with her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) but soon finds out that Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the chief of the USLTA, is unwilling to pay the women players equally even though the women sell as many tickets as the men. Billie, along with her business partner, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) walks out and together create the Virginia Slims series, taking the women players with them. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, three times Wimbledon champion is 55, fighting a gambling addiction and is forced to work a dull day job to please his wife, who supports him. He misses his glory days and amuses himself with stunt matches, such as holding two dogs in one hand, his racket in another.
The story continues, giving us both points of view, showing us Bobby’s relationship issues with his wife and his connection with his oldest son as his wife gets fed up with his gambling and throws him out. The writers delve into Billie’s drive to succeed as well as her exploration of her sexuality and her affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Billy hides the relationship both out of fear of hurting her supportive husband but also fear of losing her sponsorships and her career. When Bobby challenges her, she initially turns him down.
Bobby turns to Billie’s rival, Margaret Court, who has overtaken Billie in their most recent match. When Bobby trounces Margaret, playing up the male chauvinist angle, he throws out a challenge to the rest of the female players. Billie takes up the challenge, concerned that the loss will set back women’s rights and cost them equal pay.
The movie does a wonderful job of touching on the motivations of both players, giving us an emotional look at Billie’s private agony but also highlighting that Bobby only creates the circus and the role of chauvinist pig to gain back the spotlight and to earn money. Billie seeks to have a voice, to be heard while Bobby just wants one last chance to shine.
One of the things I respect the most is the balanced writing. Neither Billie or Bobby are portrayed as negative. Both are given equal time in the film and both sides are told with unflinching honesty. Billie’s desire for equality comes through loud and clear but you also see that she’s human and flawed while Bobby is shown as a caring father and a loving husband despite his addiction to gambling.
This film is perfectly cast. Steve Carrell is the perfect choice for Bobby Riggs, the director reining in his performance to allow his humor to be channeled into the character. Bobby Riggs was a clown and for this part, Carrell’s humor is spot on. Emma Stone, while prettier than Billie in real life, lives and breathes this role, her portrayal so good that she even has the mannerisms of Billie down, the walk, the hair, and the way she talked. The actors are what drive this movie, create the believability and are what make this film so beautifully done. While the details are perfect, the outfits and the props, it is the acting that makes the movie.
The other part I enjoyed was how the filming blends the performance with actual footage of Margaret Court’s match with Bobby as well as Billie’s. The footage cements us in that time, grounding us in the era and kept me engaged in the film. There are also photos of both King and Riggs shown at the end that create authenticity. We even have some shots of Howard Cosell, arm around Rosie Casals, highlighting the male attitude of the time.
Not only were Steven Carell and Emma Stone amazing in their performances (I would be surprised if Emma doesn’t win an award) but they had a brilliant supporting cast. Sarah Silverman was witty as Gladys. Andrea Riseborough played Marilyn as tender and passionate. Austin Stowell is kind and protective as Billie’s husband Larry. The other female players all added depth while Alan Cummings as Billie’s fashion designer is played as insightful and caring.
Despite analyzing this film, I could not find any flaws. The pacing kept the story moving. Even knowing the ending, the action is taut and I was kept on the edge of my seat, waiting for Billie to win, each lob and volley on the court creating tension in the final scenes. There are no superfluous scenes. Each scene was important to the movie as a whole and I was deeply engaged in the story. It was not preachy but rather allowed the viewers to decide what the story means to them.
Whether you’re interested in the history or not, this movie is well worth watching, both for the lessons it brings to the present but also for the personal dramas and the very real people behind the story of one of the greatest tennis matches in history. It reminds us of the need for gender equality even in the present. This is a dynamic, compelling story with incredible acting that shouldn’t be missed and I personally found it uplifting and positive.
Rating: 5 stars
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 and boardrooms that continue to reverberate today.
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Elisabeth Shue, Alan Cumming, Bill Pullman
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by: Simon Beaufoy