Taking us back to 1973, when feminism and the fight for equality was gaining traction, Battle of the Sexes dramatises the seminal match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Taking on a story sadly as relevant today as it was four decades ago, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) bring this true life story to audiences in a thought-provoking, uplifting, gripping manner.
Angry that women on the Grand Slam tennis circuit were being paid an eighth of what their male counterparts were getting, Billie Jean King made a stand by forming the Women’s Tennis Association. In so-doing, she ruffled the feathers of the old boy’s club running world tennis at the time, who were shocked to realise the WTA were so loved by the public and started making a name for themselves.
Annoyed by the WTA’s success and unexpected fame, 55-year-old former champion and gambler Bobby Riggs challenged King to a match with him, claiming his advanced age would level the playing field when competing against a 30-year-old woman. Uncertain but supported by her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), King accepted Riggs’ unusual challenge, and the televised match changed the face of women’s tennis forever.
Seeing unearned entitlement and chauvinism lose is always enjoyable, but here it feels particularly important. Though Battle of the Sexes has a lightness of touch, with plenty of humour, one can feel the importance of the underlying subject matter. And it’s so well-acted and written that Battle of the Sexes becomes thought-provoking without shovelling information down the viewer’s throat. The script instead allows us to get to know the people involved and why they became a part of this seminal sporting and cultural moment.
It was some of the smallest touches that made the film for me, using the old 20th Century Fox ident in the opening credits was a nice touch, as was amplifying Bobby’s words to Billie after the match against the background sound of applause to make it hit home that those words were so important to Billie. Battle of the Sexes’ story still feels very relevant, which makes it easier for younger generations to get into the movie while also highlighting how society sadly haven’t developed quite as far as believed. But the story is also very uplifting, making the viewer feel empowered as they watch the titular ‘battle’ on the court, leaving you with a big grin on your face by the end.
The casting couldn’t be better. Emma Stone (La La Land) as Billie Jean King is an inspired choice—she has the quiet determination, raw energy, and defiance that tennis fans loved Billie for, as well as a smart acerbic tongue that makes her verbal battles very entertaining. Likewise, nobody else could’ve played Bobby Riggs other than Steve Carrell, who plays upon his role in The Office to deliver the seediness and discomfort required for a dinosaur with his views during such rapidly changing times. He plays Bobby with the ridiculousness necessary for a man who once posed nude with a tennis racket.
The cast is rounded out with great character actors like Bill Pullman as the villainous Kramer, who was instrumental in ex-communicating Billie from the Lawn Tennis Association; Alan Cumming as long-term friend and designer Ted Tinling; and Sarah Silverman as King’s supporter and collaborator on the Virginia Slims circuit Gladys Heldman. Everyone plays their parts with the utmost respect to the real folk they’re portraying, and are just as engaging and interesting as the leads.
Battle of the Sexes is an enjoyable look at a moment in time that’ll never be forgotten. Fascinating and funny, the cast deliver some of their best performances to date and it shows—particularly for Stone, for whom this deserved to be a career-defining role. It’s a shame the film doesn’t cover the period after the match, as King and Riggs’ resulting friendship would be just as interesting to see, but focusing on the build-up and their match makes this an entertaining sports movie about gender politics. Something you should watch even if you don’t especially like tennis.
There’s a decent amount of special features on the DVD release, including raw film footage and stills galleries, but the highlights are two featurettes. One involves the cast and crew taking about the real-life story and their feelings about it; while “Billie Jean King: In Her Own Words” is a must-watch if you’re curious about the woman that made such an impact, as she talks about the fight for equality, her hesitancy to take up the challenge, and her friendship with Bobby Riggs. The only thing that could improve this offering would be to have the real 1973 match included, but it can be found online for those of you whose curiosity is piqued.
Cast & Crew
directors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.
writer: Simon Beaufoy.
starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell & Eric Christian Olsen.