OnScreen Review: 'Battle of the Sexes'

OnScreen Review: 'Battle of the Sexes'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

When I was a kid growing up, we had a couple of sports VHS tapes in our family library. I have fond memories of NBA Superstars and the Sports Illustrated Year in Review or the Football Follies compilations. One of them was an HBO tape called “All-New Not-So-Great Moments in Sports History” hosted by Tim McCarver. There were some fascinating stories from the annals of sports history, including Louis Zamperini signaling the start of the 2nd annual Louis Zamperini Memorial Mile, a race renamed such after he was presumed dead in WWII. One of the other stories on that VHS tape was about the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs from the 1973. It caught my attention, then, when I saw that a film was being made about the match, I was instantly interested.

To my surprise, the film was actually about far more than just the match and the build to the match, but more about the lives of these two people.  Emma Stone, fresh off her Best Actress Oscar, portrays Billie Jean King, a female tennis star at the top of her game and the best in the world. Steve Carrell is cast as Bobby Riggs, a middle-aged tennis Hall of Famer who was a notorious gambler, a shameless self-promoter, and a self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig.” Before they would eventually square off at the Astrodome in Houston, both go through quite a lot personally and professionally.

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell are the two stars of the film, but overall the film belongs to Stone. The film is far more interested in her storyline than in Riggs, which is fair because there is a lot happening in her life. Unable to get equal pay, King would break from the male-dominated tennis circuits along with 8 other tennis players and with the assistance of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to form what would eventually become the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Funded by Virginia Slims, these nine women would blaze their own path in sports. The camaraderie that is built up between the women over the course of the film resembles some of the charm and spark that makes the Netflix series G.L.O.W. so enjoyable.  Of the group of women, Natalie Morales stands out for her colorful portrayal of Rosie Casals in a solid and entertaining supporting role.

 

The film also delves into the personal life of King, a married and closeted lesbian at the time. She meets and quickly falls for hairdresser Marilyn Bennet (Andrea Riseborough). Her husband at the time, Larry King (not that Larry King), portrayed by Austin Stowell, is an attorney deeply involved in Billie Jean’s business and the women’s tennis business. Their marriage is portrayed as much as a business relationship than anything, though they both clearly care for each other. The relationship between Billie Jean and Marilyn is laid on a little thick and heavy-handed and it stands out a bit from the rest of the film.

While all of this is going on in King’s life, Carrell’s Riggs is going through a bit of an identity crisis. After living the high life as a tennis star, he has settled down with his wife, Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue), and gotten a desk job in her father’s business. Known as a notorious gambler, he has also given that up too for the sake of his wife and their young son. But old habits die hard, and Bobby easily slips into his old ways early on, ending up with a friend’s Rolls Royce that he won off of him.

Riggs is an interesting, rich character that I wish the film had spent some more time coloring in as to his motivations. Riggs pushes Billie Jean for the match, hatching the idea and calling her late at night with the idea for this big spectacle event. Given the symbolic and actual fight for equality that Billie Jean is struggling through, it’s clear why she eventually agrees to it, despite initially shrugging him off. It’s never entirely clear why Bobby is doing it. Is he doing it because he craves the attention? Is it because of the need to scratch the competitive itch? Is it because he is an absolute misogynist? The film partly rules out that third option, heavily implying that his male chauvinist pig routine is as much about show and “entertainment” than it was about deeply held beliefs about gender roles. Bobby Riggs comes across more like a wrestling character than a full-fledged villain trying to actually keep women domesticated. Beyond that, though, his intentions are never fully revealed.

 

It also doesn’t help that the battle between King and tennis tour promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is of at least equal importance to the actual “Battle of the Sexes.” Kramer is the real antagonist to King, refusing to budge on the 12:1 pay gap between the men and the women on the tour that leads to King and the others pulling out and forming their own tour. For all of his public bluster, Stone’s King points out to Jack, “Bobby’s a clown. This whole thing’s an act for him, Jack, you know that. But with you it’s different, it’s for real.” She’s right, but even as it shows that the tennis match is about more than just what it is billed as, it undercuts the action on the tennis court and marginalizes the character of Bobby ever so slightly. It’s also worth mentioning that there is hardly any interaction between the two main leads for the majority of the film until they share the court together, and then most of that is done through stand-in doubles for the majority of the tennis scenes, which are expertly recreated, by the way. It’s like Stone and Carrell are starring in two separate movies that eventually join together in the end, and I was left with a distinct impression that some scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

Aside from a few tonal issues that result from putting the emphasis of the film on the social issues surrounding the match rather than the match itself, Battle of the Sexes is an easy film to take in and enjoy. Carrell and Stone give terrific performances, as do the supporting cast, Pullman, Silverman, and Morales in particular. The Battle of the Sexes was more of a culturally significant moment than it was a significant moment in sports, which is why the focus of the film is broader than just the event. The film is much more interested in Billie Jean than it is in Bobby Riggs, which doesn’t match the structure of the film. A little more interaction between the two leads could have elevated a pretty good film into a very good film. As it is, Stone and Carrell’s performances alone are enough to recommend this film. It’s some of the best work from both of them.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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