Battle of the Sexes Review: A Crowd-Pleasing Face Off

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Billie Jean King’s iconic tennis match against Bobby Riggs has been adapted into a highly entertaining biopic that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Certain films can get away with a little schmaltz. This summer’s Wonder Woman featured a tried-and-true do-gooder facing off against a world that was more complex than she realized, and her earnestness helped make the movie a blockbuster hit. The Jackie Robinson biopic 42 was disarmingly inspired, despite how often it dipped into sentimentality. And last year’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures had more than a few cringe-worthy lines of dialogue, but the most memorable thing about that film was the overwhelming sense of empowerment.

The point is, there are times for gritty realism, and there are times when we just want to see a hero save the day and make everything right again. Now, more than ever, it’s comforting to see stories of good vs. evil that are pure of heart—especially if they’re based in reality. Battle of the Sexes is one such story, and the 1973 tennis match between a skilled female player and a sexist, past-his-prime sleazeball is almost guaranteed to raise your spirits. There’s cheese to be had here, but it’s some high-quality Gouda that goes down quite easily.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby SparksBattle of the Sexes is a total blast to watch. Whether you remember watching the real-life match yourself, or you merely read the Wikipedia page, there’s no denying the thrill of seeing Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) triumph over the self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in a record-breaking championship match. The actual match itself is a high-octane set piece that excites despite already knowing the outcome. The really compelling moments, however, happen during the media circus that takes off before the two of them ever set foot on the court.

King is at the top of her game when the film starts, but she’s displeased with how little female tennis players are making in comparison to the men. After starting her own Women’s Tennis Association, she gets a call from Riggs, the former tennis superstar who’s now a bored gambling addict looking for his next fix. Riggs challenges King to a “battle of the sexes” match so he can prove that “women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen.” King, after initially dismissing him, decides she’s going to set the record straight.

The media eats this up, and the match itself became one of the most highly-publicized sporting events in history. The movie’s most effective scenes occur during press conferences and TV appearances, when the overt misogyny of the tennis industry is put on full display. Despite Battle of the Sexes‘ use of period-appropriate terminology, it’s easy to draw parallels to the gender equality fight happening today. Just replace “women’s lib” with “#feminism” and it’s shocking to see how relevant this story still is.

I can also see how one might easily consider the dueling King and Riggs to be Hillary and Trump, but with tennis rackets. The rivalries certainly have their similarities, but Simon Beaufoy’s (Slumdog Millionaire) script sands down Riggs’ harder edges, and humanizes him into a cartoonish showman rather than an out-and-out villain. On top of this, Carell’s performance is wholly likable, even when he acts like the pig he so proudly calls himself.

Adding these layers to Riggs suits the film’s wholehearted tone, and allows the real nefarious character to be Bill Pullman’s head of the US Lawn Tennis Association Jack Kramer. Pullman consistently wears a condescending smirk, and his scenes with Stone—more on her in a minute—are seething with an insufferable self-righteousness. It’s Kramer who has the most to lose if King beats Riggs, because his whole association is built on the idea that men are superior to women. It’s no spoiler to say that his smirk eventually turns into a frown, and it’s incredibly satisfying.

Behind the scenes of this game-changing event is an even more interesting and poignant story, and one that could easily have filled up an entirely separate movie. As King dominates in her field and trains to beat Riggs, she’s forced to confront her sexuality when she’s seduced by a hairdresser named Marilyn (Birdman‘s Andrea Riseborough).

The film handles this relationship, and its many factors, with an impressive delicacy. King is fearful that publicly outing herself as a lesbian will cost her endorsement deals. Her husband Larry (a charming Austin Stowell) is undyingly supportive, but his unexpected presence at one of her matches only further complicates things. She’s also worried that Marilyn is a distraction and is messing up her game At one point, Larry warns Marilyn, “We’re both sideshows. Her first love is tennis. If you get between her and the game, you’re gone.”

Having to deal with all this while publicly being the face of the women’s lib movement is no easy task, but Stone makes King’s every move feel authentic. Her portrayal of the legendary tennis star is at once unassuming and resolute. Her breezy line delivery gives off an everywoman informality, but her focused eyes show determined ferocity underneath. Her scenes with Carell—whom she last shared the screen with in Crazy, Stupid, Love—brim with tension, and her scenes with Riseborough are tender and breathtaking. In short, this is truly a winning performance.

The supporting players that round out the cast are all aces as well. Sarah Silverman is acerbic and hilarious as King’s manager Gladys Heldman. Alan Cumming is wise and delightful as the ladies’ tennis dress designer Ted Tinling. The wonderful Elisabeth Shue plays Riggs’ long-suffering wife Priscilla, and she’s a master at evoking emotion from small, quiet moments.

There are parts of Battle of the Sexes that will likely make you roll your eyes. Beaufoy’s script contains several contrived lines of dialogue, and even if you’ve never heard of Billie Jean King, it isn’t hard to guess who wins long before the match actually starts. Yet, none of this is able to take away this story’s power. This past summer, tennis legend John McEnroe commented that Serena Williams would be ranked “like 700 in the world” if she had to play the men’s circuit. So when I watched Billie Jean King decimate Bobby Riggs in three straight sets, I wasn’t thinking about any cheesy dialogue. I was just glad to see another hero save the day. Grade: B+


By Mike Papirmeister

One Response to Battle of the Sexes Review: A Crowd-Pleasing Face Off

  1. SherryAva says:

    This is a fantastic analysis. The movie was refreshingly uplifting.

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