8/10 “Battle of the Sexes” is one of those wonderful biopics that concerns much more than the events it depicts.
On the surface, the film chronicles the lives of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), a tennis star in her prime, and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who had been a two–time world champion in the mid-’40s, in the leadup to their 1973 tennis match billed as the Battle of the Sexes. King had been fighting an uphill battle for equal pay for female tennis players, officially splitting off from the Association of Tennis Professionals to form the Women’s Tennis Association over the issue. Upon hearing this, Riggs, famously a businessman and a bit of a ham, challenged King to a tennis match, claiming that even at age 55, he could beat even the top woman player in the world. Drawing a global viewing audience of 90 million, their duel remains one of the most watched tennis matches in history.
Riggs’ chauvinism was widely dismissed as an act to draw attention to the match, and he and King remained friends until his death in 1995. Considered one of the best tennis players of all time, King came out as gay in 1981 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for her contributions to tennis, women’s rights and the LGBT community.
For “Battle of the Sexes,” all of this serves more as a setting than its own narrative. The movie is really more a pair of love stories. In one, King embarks on her first same–sex relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) under the specter of losing her sponsorships should it come out that not only is she cheating on her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), but that she’s doing it with a woman to boot. In the other, Riggs tries to salvage his relationship with his second wife, Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue), who is divorcing him over his gambling addiction, which is part of what drove him to challenge King.
“Battle of the Sexes” is an absolutely delightful, upbeat romance boasting sterling performances from Stone, Riseborough and Carell and impeccable direction by husband–and–wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. What would really send it into the stratosphere is more attention to the comedic timing — many of the film’s punchlines are better on paper than they were performed here. But from a visual perspective, almost every scene is perfectly blocked and executed.
The film’s oddly complimentary stories, one about a relationship in bloom and the other about an ending one, grace it with a broad appeal. The lead characters are gay, straight, female, male, young and old. One is discovering exciting new things about herself, and the other is finally coming to terms with his uglier qualities. The sheer range of emotion and phases of life mean there’s something in the film that will be unifying and powerful for every viewer.
“Battle of the Sexes’” best quality, though, is its bubbly mood. It deals with sexism and heterosexism, but doesn’t really confront them. It’s like there’s a big, goofy dinner party going on in the background of every scene, and the misogyny and heteronormativity inherent in the plot aren’t evil institutions that must be dismantled as much as they are annoying obstacles that need to be navigated every now and again so everyone can keep having a good time. The film remains relentlessly optimistic in the face of subject matter that, despite incredible progress, is still much more grim 45 years later.
I have to wonder what Donald Trump would think of this movie. The parallels between it and the 2016 election are uncanny, even if the results were different. One thing “Battle of the Sexes” goes out of its way to establish a difference between Riggs’ overtly sexist showboating and tennis legend Jack Kramer’s (Bill Pullman) genuine belief in male superiority. It’s a thought-provoking dynamic, both within the film and in the context of the president — he wouldn’t dare say some of Riggs’ lines about “loving women, but only in the kitchen and the bedroom” out loud, but at the same time, he’s said so much worse without seeming to understand why.
Sadly, movies still haven’t found a way to consistently translate sports events into good action sequences, so “Battle of the Sexes” ends on its worst scene. They just kind of wave at it, recreating some of the visuals of the match while playing highlights from the color commentary over it, telling without really showing and creating a weak scene. It would have been wonderful to see these directors’ approach to creating an actual scene here, but they couldn’t exactly put an hours long tennis match at the end of a movie already that length.
There are a lot of different ways translating “Battle of the Sexes” into a movie could have played out, and this is probably one of the best. It takes this tennis match that was half tongue-in-cheek gimmick, half feminist landmark and turns it into a deeply human movie about tennis, gender discrimination, falling in and out of love, growing up and goofing off. It’s wonderful to watch.
For more, check out Leopold Knopp’s movie blog at reelentropy.com.