BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) is based on the true story of the historic tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Griggs and Billie Jean King, which at the time was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.”
It’s a story that is every bit as relevant today as it was back then.
It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is one of the top women tennis players in the world, but she and her fellow female tennis pros are only paid 1/8 the salary that the men’s tennis players are being paid. When she confronts the head of the tennis association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), he tells her that equal pay will never happen because women tennis players are less popular than the men tennis players, an assertion she refutes by pointing out that ticket sales had been the same for both men and women players. Even so, her request for equal pay is denied.
With the help of magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) the women pull out of Kramer’s tournament and set up their own, soon attracting a major sponsor with the Virginia Slims tobacco company.
Meanwhile, retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) lives an eccentric life while being supported by his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). He’s a compulsive gambler, and in spite of Priscilla’s entreaties, he can’t seem to kick the habit. Riggs comes up with the idea of a tennis match between him and Billie Jean King, which he sees as a huge money-maker, but King refuses, not wanting to get involved with the flamboyant and unpredictable Riggs.
King is also struggling with her personal life, as she finds herself attracted to her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). King is married, and she is confused by her feelings towards Marilyn. When she loses a major match to Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Court becomes the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world.
Riggs then challenges Court, and in what became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre” easily trounced Court and declared that his victory was positive proof that men were better than women.
Unable to stand on the sidelines any longer, King changes her mind and challenges Riggs in what would become one of the most hyped and most watch tennis matches of all time, the “Battle of the Sexes.”
I really enjoyed BATTLE OF THE SEXES. The script by Simon Beaufoy , who also wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), covers a lot of ground, tackling gender equality, gay and lesbian relationships, compulsive gambling, sports, and through it all manages to keep a light and humorous tone.
Women not being paid as much as men remains relevant today, as does the stresses and tensions involving gay and lesbian relationships. There’s a line in the film where wardrobe designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who’s gay, tells King that one day she’ll be able to love whoever she wants and not be afraid to tell people about it. At the time, King knew that an admission of being a lesbian would pretty much ruin her tennis career. And while that wouldn’t happen today, there is still a long way to go towards acceptance.
One of the funnier scenes in the film takes place at a gambler’s anonymous meeting, where Riggs tells his fellow gamblers that their problem isn’t that they gamble too much but that they lose, and what they really need to be doing with their time is not attending these meetings but learning how to win.
And the film does a nice job covering the actual event, the “Battle of the Sexes,” complete with real footage of then announcer Howard Cosell calling the match. You really feel as if you have been transported back to 1973 during these scenes.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also directed Steve Carell in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) do a fine job here. Again, the climactic match is expertly crafted, generating as much tension as any Sylvester Stallone bout in his ROCKY movies.
Emma Stone has followed her Oscar-winning performance in LA LA LAND (2016) with a very different but equally successful performance as Billie Jean King. Stone is marvelous in this movie. She captures King’s emotions, fears, and shows her grit and strength of character. It’s a wonderful performance. Stone is one of the most talented actors working today, and her work here only solidifies that ranking. She’s clearly at the top of her game.
Steve Carell enjoys the liveliest scenes in the movie as Bobby Riggs, and he’s perfectly cast as the retired tennis pro. Riggs was a tireless self-promoter, and all the crazy shenanigans he pulls to promote the “Battle of the Sexes” are captured brilliantly by Carell, who’s very funny here. But, as he so often does, Carell goes deeper with the character, and we really feel for him, especially as he battles his gambling demons
It’s also made quite clear both by the script and by Carell’s performance that the male chauvinist comments he endlessly spewed out in the weeks leading up to the match were simply an act to promote the event. In fact, in real life, he and King would become good friends.
If there’s one flaw the movie has it’s that it doesn’t do the best job developing its supporting characters. We get to know some more than others.
Andrea Riseborough, for example, who plays King’s love interest Marilyn Barnett, doesn’t quite match the same intensity as Stone and Carell do here. Part of this is the writing, which really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Barnett. We know very little about her, other than she and King generate sparks pretty much as soon as they see each other. We also learn little about magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).
On the other hand, Bill Pullman pretty much blew me away in his small role as Jack Kramer, the man who refused to pay King as much as the male tennis players. Unlike Carell’s Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer’s sexism was not an act. Pullman plays him perfectly. He doesn’t come off as a man who hates women or wants to put them down. He simply believes he’s right, and he is blind to the fact that his actions are putting women down. It’s one of Pullman’s best performances in a while.
Alan Cumming is equally effective as Ted Tinling, the gay wardrobe designer who offers advice to King. Likewise, Elisabeth Shue is very good as Riggs’ wife Priscilla. She has a great line when she chastises her husband for his chauvinist talk when for years now she has been the one supporting him. But she’s not a bitter woman, and even though she leaves Riggs for a time, later, when he’s alone, she’s the one who helps him pick up the pieces.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES is more than just a movie about a tennis match. It’s a movie about gender inequality, about sexual self-awareness, about compulsive gambling, sports, and life in the early 1970s.
It’s also the story of two very different people, connected by a sport at two very different moments in their careers. At 55, Bobby Riggs was retired and acting like a one-man tennis version of The Harlem Globetrotters, while at 29, Billie Jean King was at the top of her game.
Riggs was a compulsive hustler and gambler who couldn’t control his outlandish lifestyle and so decided to embrace it. King was a voice for women’s rights, unintentionally at first, until after the Battle of the Sexes, when she would become a rallying cry for women’s equality and liberation.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES is entertaining, educational, and informative, and since the gender equality and gay and lesbian issues it touts are still relevant today, it’s an important movie as well.