Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Premise: Based on a true story. In 1973, former men’s tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) challenged women’s tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) to a match that became a media sensation and a defining cultural moment of the 1970s.
What Works: The best sports movies connect athleticism with something that gives the contest personal or cultural meaning. Battle of the Sexes is one of the better examples of this. The movie uses the 1973 tennis match to touch upon an impressive array of topics and travels both inward and outward. It is at one level a character study of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and the story goes beyond the sports coverage to portray these people with complexity and nuance. The consummate professional athlete, Billie Jean King’s existence revolves around the sport that she loves and her focus on being the best tennis player comes with sacrifices. She’s also revealed to have complicated sexual feelings. King is married to a man but she begins a love affair with a female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). The film does an admirable job portraying the affair, and the actors smartly underplay key moments in a way that makes the scenes more emotionally impactful. Emma Stone is terrific as Billie Jean King. The role calls for the spunk that Stone does well but there is also a sadness and isolation that seethes underneath her performance. The same complexity is afforded to Bobby Riggs. It would be very easy to make Riggs a one-dimensional misogynistic clown but there’s more to him than that. Steve Carell is perfectly cast as Riggs. Not only does he look remarkably like the real life tennis player, but he also captures the man’s contradictory nature. Riggs is revealed to have a complicated relationship with his wife (Elisabeth Shue) who financially supported him while he paraded around shouting chauvinistic slogans. The film sheds some doubt as to whether Riggs actually meant any of this; he was a master of self-promotion and needed the money. But whether Riggs’ sexist slurs were authentic is perhaps beside the point. Women certainly took him at his word as did many men and that’s where Battle of the Sexes pushes outward to connect sports with bigger issues. The film portrays the match as a struggle for gender equality in sports and in the culture more broadly. Well before Bobby Riggs taunted women, Billie Jean King and her promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) conflicted with the male dominated tennis establishment, which devalued the female players. Historically, movies always reflect the times in which they are made and it is difficult to ignore the fact that Battle of the Sexes showcases this particular conflict at a time in which pay inequality in Hollywood films has been a focus of industry news, with Emma Stone herself speaking out on the matter. Aside from the thematic content, Battle of the Sexes is also an impressive period piece. The film recreates the look of the 1970s in a way that feels authentic and it is terrifically shot, capturing the look of media from that decade.
What Doesn’t: Oddly, the weakest element of Battle of the Sexes is the titular match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs. When the movie finally gets to its showdown, much of the energy and drama dissipates. That’s partly a result of the way the finale is shot and edited. Tennis is not a visually interesting sport and a lot of the match is staged like a television broadcast with the action mostly captured in wide shots. The film doesn’t get a sense of the drama or the player’s frustrations. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the reactions of the crowd, which is part of the point, but this creative decision diminishes the immediate drama of the competition between these two athletes.
Bottom Line: Battle of the Sexes is one of the best sports movies of recent years. The movie is smartly written and has some terrific performances. It’s also a perfect film for this particular moment both with regard to Hollywood and to the culture at large.
Episode: #668 (October 8, 2017)