If ever there was a movie tailor-made for our times, it must be the saga of Billie Jean King, and when she was forced to shut down a loud, obnoxious misogynist before the eyes of an entire country. That Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes is also so unapologetically vintage in its 1973 setting—practically wallowing in the period piece aesthetics—just makes its timeliness both dispiriting and, somehow, inspiring. Clearly a feel-good movie meant to celebrate the progress of women in our culture, Battle of the Sexes now arrives as an unintentional yet galvanizing clarion call to not leave the court or throw down the racket. There are still more matches left to play, and the one offered by this film is a joyous rallying cry, indeed.
With a title as awash in political overtones as the gaudy extravaganza tennis player Bobby Riggs engineered for his exhibition match against King in ’73, Battle of the Sexes is hitting theaters with plenty of expectations about how a woman silenced millions of chauvinists in a single night. But the project, presented with maximum Hollywood gloss, is at its best when it is not about a proverbial battle of gender. Instead it offers in its quieter moments a poignant portrait of King, played by the newly minted Oscar winner Emma Stone. Here is a figure confined to the box of feminine crusader for simply daring to want things in public that she shouldn’t need to demand… as well as to covet in private more that she’d even dare to want.
As much a film about a closeted woman forced to hide one desire to carry the banner of another, Battle of the Sexes is actually an anthem of identity—one as loud as any of the Elton John ballads playing on the soundtrack. Which makes its current seasonableness all the more prescient.
Picking up after Billie Jean has already won tennis’ Grand Slam (Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open), the ace pro still finds herself being offered only one-eighth the prize money as her male counterparts in a new tournament. Bill Pullman shows up early here for a particularly slimy role as Jack Kramer, the man who must insist, due to biology mind you, that there’s just no way women could be paid the same as men.
So Billie Jean and Gladys Heldman (a slick Sarah Silverman) create the Women’s Tennis Association in retaliation. Taking most of the best female players with them on their own tour, Billie Jean becomes an instant target for the kind of 1970s sexism that makes Anchorman look tame. This includes the attention of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a one-time Wimbledon champ bored with middle age, his desk job, and a wife (Elisabeth Shue) perpetually frowning on his gambling habits. Always searching for an angle, Riggs becomes obsessed with escaping retirement by competing against women tennis players for purses higher than they can earn against their prime-aged peers. He becomes obsessed with challenging Billie Jean King.
As per Riggs, it’s all a publicity stunt complete with self-aware groaners like “I’m going to put the show back into chauvinism.” Yet it doesn’t exactly seem that funny when by the film’s climax, he has 90 million Americans watching with glee as Howard Cosell puts a caressing hand around the back of a female tennis player’s neck while explaining to her the virtues of Bobby Riggs’ professionalism.
It’s such a spectacle that there’s no mystery as to why Billie Jean wants to keep her newfound love affair with a hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) secret, even while her nice guy husband Larry (Austin Stowell) passively looks on.
A story about a tennis match that was promoted into a national phenomenon, Dayton and Faris embrace the sensationalistic qualities of the Battle of the Sexes with the same kind of soft-touch deftness that informed Little Miss Sunshine. A well-financed biopic through-and-through, there is a cleanness to the storytelling of this Hollywood Billie Jean King crucible that is both disarming and deceptive. While the film might lean a little too into stereotypes and shorthand during the first act, and it gives plenty of showy moments for Stone and Carell to sink their teeth into, the movie can often be intimate and surprisingly subtle—usually while Riggs is off-screen.
To be sure, Carell is perfect for the larger than life showman who revels in the spotlight. With the hairy ignorance of Brick Tamland and the preening arrogance of The Big Short’s Mark Baum, it is a role that Carell effortlessly inhabits with extra razzle dazzle. But when he looks in the mirror, the soul of the film can transition to Stone’s King doing the same thing while having her first fortuitous encounter with Marilyn.
It is when Billie Jean is glancing at the part of herself she either always denied, or had long forgotten about, that the movie finds its messier, chaotic humanity. Stone gives an authentic and unglamorous realization of a 29-year-old experiencing love for the first time—as well as the guilt of infidelity—but it is the understated turn by Riseborough that really anchors it all. The subplot is also buttressed by Alan Cumming in a small role that he artfully moves from fabulous stereotype to sage-like whisperer on Billie Jean’s shoulder.
This modern flourish offsets the fact that the movie’s titular hot button is often handled with kid gloves. Battle of the Sexes reserves almost all of its scorn for the greasy good ol’ boy played by Pullman. While it wisely humanizes Bobby Riggs’ domestic life into more than a cartoon, the film also suggests that since he realizes misogyny is synonymous with buffoonery, he is little more than a hapless obstacle. One imagines that if Dayton, Faris, and even Carell, realized while making this that the battle wasn’t settled—and in fact a crushing defeat was coming with the ascension of Donald J. “Grab ‘em by the [genitals]” Trump—the entire tone and tenor of the film’s third act might have changed.
Whether Riggs was just a good-natured clown or a sleazy opportunist, he fanned the flames of public sexism and the myth that men must assert dominance over a gender asking simply for equality. And his final showdown with Billie Jean in this film is thus a euphoric smackdown of pride crashing against the rocks of reality. Male braggadocio meets steely feminist fire, and Hollywood plotting discovers real world harmony for a graceful high note.
Battle of the Sexes is a funny and moving entertainment with catharsis to spare. Even if it is not a flawless shutout, it easily serves up the crowd-pleaser of the season.
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