FILM REVIEW – BATTLE OF THE SEXES. With Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity. 121 minutes.
It was 1973, and a mix of personalities and social trends came together in a perfect storm that would have ramifications no one could have foreseen from a pop culture event. BATTLE OF THE SEXES tells the story of the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match capturing both the comic and the seriously earnest aspects of what would become one of the most famous tennis matches ever.
Twenty-nine-year-old King (Emma Stone, bearing a striking resemblance) has just won the position of the number one player in women’s tennis. It is an achievement that gets her a congratulatory phone call from President Nixon, but as far as Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the tennis association is concerned, it’s a sideshow to “real” tennis which is all about men. By way of contrast, she learns that the top prize on the women’s tour is $1,500 while for the men it’s $12,000. So with the help of her manager (Sarah Silverman), King sets up a competing women’s tour to call attention to the skills and accomplishments of women players.
Meanwhile, Riggs (Steve Carell) was a legitimately great tennis player who is now in his 50s and playing the senior circuit for small rewards. An inveterate gambler and hustler, Riggs makes more money with outlandish stunts, like playing matches in costumes or with obstacles like sheep on the court. He then gets the idea to challenge the top woman player, billing himself as a male chauvinist who will send women back to the kitchen.
Riggs didn’t really believe it–he relied on the income of his wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue)–but he knew it would play well. All this led to what became an internationally televised tennis match where Riggs was essentially a clown, but still a solid player, while King saw an opportunity to puncture the attitudes that Riggs professed and countless others actually believed.
Behind the scenes, and unknown to the public at the time, Riggs’ marriage was on the rocks due to his gambling addiction, and King–who was married–was questioning her sexuality through an involvement with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). If women’s equality was a hot topic in 1973, gay rights were barely on the radar. If King’s story had become public at the time, it might have destroyed her career. There’s a touching moment when the obviously gay designer (Alan Cummings) of the outfits for the women’s tour tells her that someday things will be different.
The filmmakers and the cast capture the era, striking just the right tone in reflecting upon the confrontation. Carell’s Riggs is a provocateur, but not the villain of the piece, who is really the tennis association’s Kramer, a man who had the power to enforce his sexist views on the sport. When we see the patronizing way ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell deals with tennis player Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), who is commenting on the match, we see just how unthinking these attitudes were.
As for Stone, it is an outstanding performance, letting us see the woman who had the strength at 29 to take on the establishment and risk her career, and taking on another risk in agreeing to participate in Riggs’ hustle where a loss would have made her a footnote to history. The battle for equality may not be over, but “Battle of the Sexes” reminds us–in the slogan of the women’s tour sponsor–we’ve come a long way, baby.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.