Film Review: Battle of the Sexes

An exciting, fun and emotional crowd-pleaser, 'Battle of the Sexes' finds unexpected ties to today’s politics in charting a legendary 1973 tennis match.
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“Billie Jean For President!” This is just one of the celebratory signs we see at the end of Battle of the Sexes, a buoyant, crowd-pleasing dramedy that recounts the events leading to the historic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, a three-time Wimbledon champion, and the middle-aged Bobby Riggs, a former tennis victor. The camera surveys the cheering thousands in the Houston Astrodome at the end of the televised and much-publicized contest (no spoiler: King won) and our attention lands on the sign in question for a quick moment. In this winning film from the Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the clash between King and Riggs (which the public almost treats like the Moon landing) is of course a lot more than a tennis match. It is indeed a battle between genders: a chance for women to prove their equal worth (in tennis and everywhere else) and show chauvinistic men that females are just as strong, skilled and capable. That sign carries timely weight in a year defined by a presidential election that slipped out of the hands of the only qualified, capable candidate, who happened to be a female. Every politically charged moment in Battle of the Sexes makes one wonder, “What if I were watching this under different historic circumstances?”

With its themes of women’s liberation and LGBTQ rights, there is no denying the accidental relevance and urgency of this massively entertaining and oftentimes very funny film. Each time someone doubts Billie Jean, or a man utters a toxic and cringe-worthy remark about a woman (warning: this happens quite frequently), knowing that today’s world should be a lot further along in women’s equality truly stings. A no-nonsense Emma Stone plays Billie Jean with confidence, nailing her posture, firm walk and tennis acumen. No longer accepting the embarrassment of getting paid a fraction of what male tennis players make (she argues that women’s matches sell out at equal prices), Billie Jean exits the United States Lawn Tennis Association, led by the arrogant Jack Cramer (Bill Pullman), and starts her own tour with other top female players. Seeing a PR opportunity in a show match against Billie Jean under her new tennis umbrella (and to reinstate male superiority), the ostentatious, chronic gambler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, strangely likeable despite all) challenges her.

Meanwhile, Billie Jean, married to Larry (Austin Stowell), out of the blue meets a hairdresser named Marilyn (a terrific Andrea Riseborough) and falls in love with her. The storyline of Billie Jean questioning her sexuality arrives early in the film and deepens it with its abundant romance. (A hat tip to the screenwriter, Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy, for not selling the relationship short.) Their first meeting happens as Billie Jean sits in a hairdresser’s chair to be styled by Marilyn. La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures this leisurely, sensual scene in heated colors, closing in on the women’s faces. While Billie Jean’s suspicious but ultimately understanding husband hovers around in the ensuing months, we also get a look at Riggs’ life, as his gambling habits jeopardize his relationship with his strong-minded but loving wife (a welcome Elisabeth Shue). Also in the mix is a memorably foxy Sarah Silverman as Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman, an empowering character enlivened by Mary Zophres’ impeccable costuming.

The grand finale, the tightly edited tennis match, is a feel-good, emotional sports spectacle—in the tradition of Rocky and A League of Their Own—that might just bring audiences to their feet. The sequence unfolds with tension; with each passing minute, we become more aware of the game’s high-stakes nature for women, who have something meaningful to lose. When Billie Jean eventually claims the trophy on behalf of females, the joy feels well earned. Spending time in the presence of this heroic woman who plays by her own rules and doesn’t take no for an answer transports us for a few hours to an exhilarating, hopeful alternate dimension.

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