Battle of the Sexes is about more than a 1973 tennis match between rising female tennis star Billie Jean King and a past-his-prime, buffoonish Bobby Riggs. In portraying one of America’s early public figures to live openly as a homosexual, the film also addresses women’s rights, but it leaves little room for reactions other than celebration of the resulting cultural changes. 3.5 out of 5.
In 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is a rising star on the U.S. tennis circuit, but her challenges aren't just on the court. She fights tournament officials who won't give women anything close to an equal share of the prize money earned by male players and squares off against broadcasters who openly share their lower opinions of women's tennis compared to the men's game. With the help of a friend (Sarah Silverman), King starts her own all-female tennis tournament and then accepts a challenge from tennis great Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) to play him one-on-one. The highly publicized match would draw a massive audience—90 million viewers worldwide—but behind the scenes, the two players were in tumult. The married King became romantically involved with a woman, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), while Riggs' wife (Elisabeth Shue) threw him out of the house over his refusal to get serious about his gambling problem.
As fine as Stone and Carell are in the lead roles, they're occasionally upstaged by strong support from Silverman and Shue.
Battle of the Sexes tackles several big subjects—maybe too many, as it loses sight of a few characters (like Riggs' gambling buddies, who pop up again toward the conclusion after disappearing for most of the film). More concerning is the portrayal of King's husband (Austin Stowell), whose grieving at the discovery of his wife's infidelity comes across as very short-lived and whose subsequent role in his wife's pursuits is largely unquestioned. What was left out, one might wonder, in showing the history of the King marriage? A subplot about Riggs' relationship with his son also is underdeveloped.
Facing discrimination, King's friend Gladys asks, "Is it because I’m a woman or because I’m a Jew?" As for disapproval of King’s lesbianism, the screenwriters have Australian tennis star Margaret Court speak disapprovingly to her husband of King's "licentiousness, immorality and sin." In a sense, that makes Court a second villain of sorts alongside the chauvinist Riggs, who opposes the women's rights movement. The only semi-critique of King in the film comes from her ex-husband, who warns Gladys, "We're both just sideshows. If you get between her and the game, you'll be gone." Later King explains her philosophy: "I'm going to be the best. That’s the only way I can change things." But in a moment of self-reflection, after a character tells King she's a "good woman," King replies, "I wish that were true." Gladys tells King that if she loses to Riggs, Gladys will never forgive her, and a gay character tells King, "Some day we will be free to be who we are and to love who we love."
RECOMMENDED FOR: Those who enjoy well-told, well performed historical stories, and for tennis fans—especially those who remember the Riggs-King match.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Though the film has some moments of real pain that resulted from King's embrace of lesbianism, it mostly celebrates the cultural changes that King’s public life helped bring about.
Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, opens in limited theaters September 22, 2017, wider September 29. It runs 121 minutes and stars Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough and Elisabeth Shue. Watch the trailer for Battle of the Sexes here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: September 21, 2017
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