Battle of the Sexes dramatizes the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and their fight for more equal pay for women in professional tennis, leading up to the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). When the head of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), refuses to pay the female tennis champions more prize money, the top women’s player, King, and eight other women sign one dollar contracts with Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), who then organizes the Virginia Slim Series, a tour of women’s tournaments. Former tennis champion and gambling addict Riggs sees the publicity around the WTA and their demands and tries to get King to play him in an exhibition game, in hopes that he can both make a bunch of money and prove that the women do not deserve more. Seeing through Riggs, King initially turns him down. Meanwhile, as the tour progresses, a romance unfolds between King and her hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).
Battle of the Sexes is at its best on the tennis court. The scenes featuring the women’s matches and the ultimate Battle of the Sexes feature some of the most compelling filmmaking in the movie. These scenes are tense and exciting, especially when the stakes are clearly set around the reputation of female athletes. A good sports movie also requires a training montage, and the training scene is used to show Billie Jean King’s intensity and Bobby Riggs’s clownishness. Through that dynamic, the sports scenes of the film focus the plot on the bigger story about King’s activism around the WTA and later Title IX.
The romantic subplots do not work as well. The script does an admirable job portraying both King and Riggs as people more complex than their public personas reveal. In one scene, Riggs plays with his son, jumping from sofa to sofa to avoid lava. It tempers the image he creates as a “male chauvinist pig” just a bit. Meanwhile, the tension between her love life and her tennis game that King experiences adds some suspense to a story otherwise headed to a known ending. The romantic turmoil King and Riggs both experience, however, is just not as compelling as the action on the tennis court. It made me wish for more tennis and less angst. Nevertheless, Battle of the Sexes depicts the love triangle between Billie Jean, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), and Marilyn with nuance and tenderness. No one is a bad guy and the drama exposes some flaws in a character who otherwise would have seemed too perfect to relate to.
As a period piece, the movie makes a meal of the shift in gender politics, but it also has a lot of fun with costuming, particularly the tennis dresses designed for the women by a gay designer played by Alan Cumming. Even if it was based in truth, it functions like such a genre trope that it is distracting and weighs down the story.
The acting in Battle of the Sexes is much better than the writing or the filmmaking. Emma Stone is strong and vulnerable as Billie Jean King. Steve Carell is often at peak Michael Scott in his performance, but also gets to show off his dramatic chops. Sarah Silverman is charming as Gladys, a role that seemed written for her. The supporting cast is not always very good, but Natalie Morales, who plays Rosie, one of the founding WTA members, gives a standout performance.
Overall, Battle of the Sexes is well worth a watch and features a great story and strong performances. It is not an excellent film, but I found myself excited and cheering during a 40 year old tennis match I knew the outcome of. That’s not nothing. 3 of 5 stars.
Battle of the Sexes was written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. It runs 2 hours and 2 minute and is rated PG-13.
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