Stop me if you’ve heard this story: A showboating misogynist whose antics are considered playful male banter goes up against a headstrong feminist who, in spite of her skills and intelligence is criticized for her appearance. It’d be easy to say we saw this play out on the public stage during the recent Presidential election, but in 1973 this was the set-up for the tennis match dubbed “the battle of the sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s sweet and sensitive biopic of King often overshadows the match itself, but the entire affair is worth tackling.
In 1973 Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is considered “the most successful woman player of all time.” Angered by the lack of support for women’s tennis King strikes out on her own, starting a female tennis league. But a lack of funding sees her taking on a match between former tennis champ and chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). The two are set to do battle as King herself struggles to deal with new feelings she’s having for a female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough).
Calling Battle of the Sexes a sports movie is fallacious considering over 90% of the film’s 120-minute runtime focuses on the characters that put the match into motion. Faris and Dayton completely immerse the audience in the world of 1973. The wavy lines and geometric shapes cinematographer Linus Sandgren showcases evoke a funky ’70s aesthetic. However it’s hard not to draw parallels to the world of 2017. The ingrained misogyny of the period is never ignored, from men calling waitresses “honey” and commenting on their outfits to the misguided logic that “people pay to see the men play…it’s not your fault [women], it’s just biology.” There’s only so many times a newscaster can call a woman of King’s caliber “little lady” before she gets irritated and it’s this world that causes Billie Jean to strike out on her own.
Simon Beaufoy’s script laser focuses on the lives of tennis women in the early-’70s, showcasing every type of woman in a way that whets the appetite to learn more. Billie Jean is married to a nice man but lacks children, in contrast to many of the women she plays with who are single. The most fascinating story alongside King’s is that of Margaret Court aka “The Arm,” played by Jessica McNamee. Derogatorily described as a “good, old-fashioned girl [who’ll] do as she’s damn well told,” Court is a married mother juggling a successful athletic career and an infant. For her playing tennis is little more than a sport; “it’s just a tennis math” devoid of deeper sociological meanings. McNamee is given a character we don’t often seen in movies – a mother able to be successful in an entertainment field without having to lose the love of her family. Someone greenlight a Margret Court biopic, stat!
King’s relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett is also given a central portion of the runtime. Emma Stone, though tenacious and dominant as King in general, only truly comes alive in her scenes opposite Riseborough. You can see the armor come off as Stone’s King relaxes in a salon chair as Riseborough’s Marilyn sensuously cuts her hair. The two’s first night together is erotically charged via lighting and how Riseborough and Stone approach each other; it’s not hard to believe Billie Jean when she questions whether her husband or parents will note the change in her. With big glasses and a shag cut it’s often hard to buy Stone’s character’s claims of being unattractive, but it’s believable in relation to how men perceive her. Stone easily sets herself up for another Oscar nomination
With so much attention paid to King and her life, Steve Carrell’s Bobby Riggs seems superfluous, either because the script is aware of the audiences’ dislike or he just wasn’t that interesting a figure by comparison. Carrell presents Bobby as a boisterous jerk who gambles to stay relevant and popular with the match as another risk he’s convinced will pay off. Whether you know the outcome of the event or not, Bobby’s continued belief in his own majesty never truly puts you on his side…maybe because the audience has seen this all before in recent weeks.
It’s the match itself that ends up being third on the film’s list of priorities and if you’re taken in by the marketing you’ll be disappointed at the lack of actual tennis played. The actual tennis sequences are slowed down, with each swing of the racket and hit of the ball unleashing all the anger and frustration King holds. Faris and Dayton eschew the typical sports movie trappings like a bombastic score in favor of quiet reflection. It’s all neatly wrapped up with a winking “someday things will be different” message that seems a bit trite for a film that’s been very blunt about our current world, but by the end the whole thing will have roused you into a fever.
Battle of the Sexes probably won’t please those seeking an inspirational sports movie. But in the vein of A League of Their Own, Battle of the Sexes is about so much more than its sport. It’s a gateway towards showing how harsh criticism was for women, and how it remains so to this day.