THE STORY – The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became the most watched televised sports event of all time. Trapped in the media glare, King and Riggs were on opposites sides of a binary argument, but off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles. With her husband urging her to fight for equal pay, the private King was also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, while Riggs gambled his legacy and reputation in a bid to relive the glories of his past.
THE CAST – Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell & Eric Christian Olsen
THE TEAM – Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris (Directors) & Simon Beaufoy (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
By Matt N.
There is a battle going on in “Battle Of The Sexes.” In fact, there are multiple battles going on. It’s not just the heavily publicized tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. It’s about the battle of equality and once again, I do not only mean between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. What “Battle Of The Sexes” does wisely, is it focuses on Billie Jean King and her sexual preferences of women and how that type of behavior was looked down upon in society (Still is, depending on where you live). It’s about her battle to live her life to the fullest and how that life is a stand-in for many other lives across the country. A few minor quibbles aside, “Battle Of The Sexes” is a crowd-pleasing success that will undoubtedly inspire and captivate audiences.
Loosely based on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), “Battle Of The Sexes” tells the story of how the once best male tennis player in the world (Who is now 55 years old, past his prime and has a gambling problem) wanted a highly publicized match with the best female player in the world, who was playing not for fame but for equal rights for women across the nation. Fueled by anger over not getting paid or respected as much by men, especially by the head of the International Tennis Federation Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), Billie Jean King accepts Bobby’s proposal. As both get ready for what may very well be the most important match of their lives, both of their personal lives threaten to throw them emotionally off of their game as the date for the Battle Of The Sexes approaches.
Let me first state a controversial opinion right off the bat. I understand that “La La Land” has its fans and I know that they are passionate. Hear me out when I say that Emma Stone gives a much more fully realized and overall better performance here as Billie Jean King than she did in her Oscar-winning role as Mia. Having to internalize complex emotions and displaying a rigor and toughness that is unshakeable in the face of male misogyny, Stone is truly compelling here in both her big and private moments. Those private moments occur in scenes between her and Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Shot in extreme close-ups with delicate and gorgeous notes from composer Nicolas Britell, the tenderness and longing for a connection between these two people reminded me of another Nicolas Britell scored film, “Moonlight.” It’s in these intimate and highly personal scenes that Emma Stone is at her best, capturing Billie Jean’s vulnerability and thus, it is where “Battle Of The Sexes” triumphs.
Where “Battle Of The Sexes” falters a bit is in how it handles the delicate balance between Billie Jean’s personal life and her professional life. The climatic tennis match between her and Bobby is played off as spectacle and is treated as a joke by Bobby as he garners as much publicity as he can for the match with disparaging comments directed towards the female society and Billie Jean King herself. He’s all talk, putting on a show for the masses and it’s here where the parallels to our real world become a tad bit frightening. It’s pretty evident that “Battle Of The Sexes” was made with the intention that Hilary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump and claim the presidency of the United States. The parallels between Bobby Riggs and Donald Trump are too uncanny. Loud, boisterous and caring only about the publicity, Riggs is the kind of chauvinistic pig that may veer too closely to some viewers who are looking for escapism from our own child-like leader. With such inevitable comparisons, the film introduces a peek into Bobby’s own personal life including his addiction to gambling and how that has impacted his personal life with his family. Those not wanting Bobby Riggs to be humanized will find that the film simply works best when it is focusing on Billie Jean and not on Bobby Riggs.
“Battle Of The Sexes” also suffers from a lack of emotional stakes. The film makes a big deal about Billie Jean King being found out by her husband for having an affair with Marilyn on the road, however, when the time comes for the two characters to confront one another on the issue, the results are unexpected, to say the least. Maybe this is a good thing, or if the screenplay had gone in a different direction, I instead would be labeling it as “typical.” I’ll admit that “Battle Of The Sexes” doesn’t abide by the typical rules of what we can expect from its story. However, the balancing act is thrown off as a result. It creates a film that is to be respected and certainly has its merits but is not perfect.
When we finally do come to the climatic tennis match between Bobby and Billie, the final act of the film seems to have had the wind sucked out of it as we watch Bobby face his second female of the film (There is a previous match between him and Margaret Court, which feels more significant) and we inevitably know how the story will end. And due to the parallels to our world today, the ending has a bittersweet feeling instead of a triumphant feeling, one that relies on text over a black background before the end credits to finally patch things up so one can leave the theater feeling good. Overall, “Battle Of The Sexes” is an unconventional sports film that when it focuses on its fascinating female lead, it is at its best. An unfortunate turn of events in our real world may cause some viewers to experience the film through a different lens, one that the filmmakers surely did not intend and that may be the greatest tragedy of all. However, the battle for women’s rights and equality between all sexes rages on and hopefully, this film will serve as a catalyst for some to join the fight and realize that the issues from the past are still just as timely as they are today.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A crowd pleasing film. Emma Stone gives what is probably the best performance of her career. The focus on Billie Jean King and the battles she went through in a male dominant society.
THE BAD – The film tries to be unconventional and thus mishandles the many different tones and story threads. Those who are still reeling from the 2016 US Election may have mixed feelings about the film’s parallels to real life events.