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.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
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."
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “god-am-”; “da-n”; “hell”; chauvinistic comments.
- Sexuality/Nudity: Women discuss their sex lives, using automotive terminology as euphemisms for men’s sexual skills; a hair stylist comes onto King, and the two end up in her hotel room, where King has her first lesbian experience; we see the two of them kiss and undress each other, but there’s no nudity; further intimacy is depicted through shots of King’s face during sex and some writhing under the covers; we see Gladys in her underwear, and wearing a shirt that extends to her panties; two gay men realize before others that King’s relationship with Gladys is romantic, and they warn King when her husband shows up unannounced; a Riggs photo shoot includes him nude on a couch, with a tennis racquet obscuring his private parts.
- Marriage: Asked if he’s still married, Riggs replies, “Barely”; both he and King are in troubled marriages, she apparently happily until her first sexual encounter with a woman (who says she has a boyfriend and whose advances, as depicted in the film, take King by surprise), he because of continued gambling problems; tennis star Margaret Court disapproves of King’s relationship with Marilyn; when Riggs attempts to reconcile with his wife, she refuses, saying she needs a husband she can rely on; we learn that Riggs and his wife eventually reconciled, and that King got divorced and found love with another woman after her relationship with Gladys
- Violence/Crime/Gambling: Riggs has a gambling problem that ruins his marriage but which is sometimes played for laughs, as when he tells others at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting that their only gambling problem is that they're bad gamblers, and when we learn that Riggs played Blackjack with his therapist; female tennis players discuss putting money on Riggs to beat King.
Drugs/Alcohol: Virginia Slims cigarettes sponsors a women’s tennis tournament, and we see the women smoking and publicizing the cigarettes; a bar scene; men drink while watching Riggs play King.
The Bottom Line
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, opened in limited theaters September 22, 2017, wider September 29; available for home viewing January 2, 2018. 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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