In 1973, self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs and feminist “libber” Billie Jean King faced off in an exhibition match that changed the world of sports. It was dubbed The Battle of the Sexes and so too is the film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The spectacle served up the largest crowd ever to witness a tennis match and not merely for the novelty of man pitted against woman. The contest was the early-70s female liberation movement given a sporting arena and provided a battleground where Title IX, an Educational Amendment guaranteeing equal financial resources to male and female sports, essentially won out.
It’s tragic how much of the film remains pertinent to 2017’s culture. Though pre-production on Battle of the Sexes began in April of 2015, shooting on the project began the same month of the following year – when Trump became the presumed nominee for the Republican Presidential Candidate. That Faris and Dayton’s film can speak as much to the 2016 Presidential Race, the first ever to occur between male and female representatives of their respective major political parties, as it does this particular match is likely to send many viewers into a state of gloomy shock and awe. In nearly 35 years, the window dressings of sexism are different but little has actually changed. Headstrong women versus crude bully. It’s a sight we’ve seen too much of this past year. But to see Steve Carrell’s take on Bobby Riggs is to put a mirror to the man in the Oval Office. Both prove callowly comfortable in their pigheadedness, taking to belittling the opposite gender at every turn, in Bobby’s case telling them to quite literally to “return to the kitchen where they belongs”. But Bobby acknowledges the fact that he’s a clown and though his playing into anti-feminism makes him an enemy of the movement on its face, there is more complexity built into this character, Dayton and Paris allowing us to see more than a crude caricature of a truly larger-than-life persona.
In fact, he’s not even really the villain of the picture. That honor goes to bonafide sexist Jack Kramer (a conceited and deliciously off-putting Bill Pullman) who pollutes the airwaves with his anti-femme agenda. When Billie Jean and her rabble of female tennis players strike out against pay inequality (with prize money awarded at eight times more to men than women), Kramer bans her from the Pacific Southwest Tennis Tournament, barring her from competing in prestige events such as the Wimbledon. Aided by manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and other players find an unlikely sponsor in Big Tobacco, launching the Virgina Slims tour. Soon the athletic circus, the fated Battle of the Sexes, rushed into the spotlight and with it gender issues invaded American homes like a tsunami.
Don’t get me wrong, not all of the gender politics stuff is hedged in with quite as much nuance as one might expect. There’s rarely a scene that goes by that fails to reiterate the normative value of women in 1972 society. This is before the age of the widespread microwave, when a vacuum cleaner was an appropriate gift for the ol’ ball and chain and Battle of the Sexes is happy to remind you of that fact often. And though the gender politics aspect of the film may prove overbearing for the less liberated members of the audience, an endless walloping of patriarchal society dumping downstream unto their other-chromosomed counterparts that is sure to upset any patron of Fox News, that is fundamental to the message of Battle of the Sexes. Sure the titular battle at its core technically takes place on a tennis court but, just as Billie Jean and her constellation of peers firmly understood, it was a battle for women’s equality, expressed through drop shots and lobs.
To Battle of the Sexes credit though, much of the most interesting stuff takes place off the court, though not all the character padding seems entirely necessary. We see Bobby Riggs spar with wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) over his gambling problem; Fred Armisen crops up as a somewhat out-of-place vitamins guru; Alan Cumming has a delectable little bit part as a very gay and very supportive, though gossipy, designer; rival tennis player Margaret “The Arm” Court (Jessica McNamee) is both a competitive force and social threat to Billie Jean, learning her most coveted secret and exploiting it to best her on the court; but its her relationship to Marilyn Barnett that proves most worthy of our attention.
Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn, a hairdresser who wants to scissor more than just Bobbie Jean’s hair, with wild abandon. She’s the cool nonchalant wind beneath Billie Jean’s metaphorical wings and watching them slip into an affair, a near-perfect scene set to Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”, is some of Battle of the Sexes most dramatically explosive material. Riseborough rises to the occasion, lending the role a free-wheeling but impassioned verve while giving Stone a ton to work off of.
At the heart of it all, Stone remains stunning. She may have just scooped up an Oscar last year for her decidedly fantastic spot in La La Land but this might just be her best work yet. It’s a revealing performance – a determined exterior and spirited ego hiding a fragile, gentle soul, one terrified of public perception and expressing her true self – and Stone handles every single aspect of it expertly. Her work here, simply fantastic.
CONCLUSION: Feminist feel-good sports drama ‘Battle of the Sexes’ features a game-set-match of a performance from Emma Stone and sturdy, goony support from Steve Carrell while making some important points sadly still pertinent today.