Time and place is important when telling a story like the one told in Battle of the Sexes. When you first see Emma Stone as tennis legend Billie Jean King, we don’t need a time stamp to tell us when and where we are. On the surface, Battle of the Sexes is very much a story about the legendary title tennis match. We come to discover, it’s much deeper than that. Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathon Dayton peel away layers until we are left with something truly affecting. Battle of the Sexes is a movie that accomplishes many things. It’s a tender love story, a sports drama and often a comedy. Above all that, it’s a truly stunning film.
The film follows the story of King, and her infamous battle with the self proclaimed male chauvinist and tennis hall-of-famer Bobby Riggs, played by a perfectly cast Steve Carell. Riggs intends to put the “show” back in chauvinist and challenged several top women’s tennis players. Battle of the Sexes balances the show Mr. Riggs intends to put on, and the quiet, private life of King. In fact, the film risks focusing more on King, than the actual match itself. Granted, everything builds to said match, but the context is important, and Faris and Dayton do a tremendous job setting this all up.
Stone gives another awards worthy performance as the conflicted and insanely talented King. King meets a hairdresser named Marilyn (played by Andrea Risenborough) and the two immediately have a spark. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren draws us in with intense close ups of Billie and Marilyn’s first encounter. It’s a dreamy, romantic and deeply sweet moment the two share and the close ups make it an especially intimate moment. Stone and Risenborough have several scenes shared together where the combination of Sandgren’s camera work and lighting along with Faris and Dayton’s sensibilities mesh perfectly to create some of the most effective drama the film has to offer.
Much like the recent inspirational drama Stronger, Battle of the Sexes has a message. And, that message has heavy handed implications, but it never feels like the film is swaying you. Sure, Billie Jean is a feminist, and she demands equality, but the film, and Simon Beaufoy’s script expertly portray every side of the complex tennis star. In many ways, it is a poignant story of a woman using her stage and fame to bring light to an issue. She is tenacious, fearless and willing to give it all up for her principles. Yet still, she is torn by feelings she’s never had before, and betrays the things she loves the most. What is clear, is Billie’s most passionate love, is for tennis. Even though the relationship with Marilyn and her husband Larry, tennis is her true love. It’s even a fact Larry admits in the film. Her love for tennis is the very thing Riggs tries to exploit. Riggs is the complete opposite personality of King. His alpha male bravado is so cleverly injected into the film, you believe Carell is this guy in real life.
That juxtaposition has potential to lead to jarring shifts in the films tone. But Carell plays the part to perfection, letting us into Bobby’s broken side. We never really realize why it is Riggs plays up the male chauvinist angle. Is that how he feels? Or is the fifty-five-year-old has been truly have nothing he grasp onto in real life? Tennis has passed Riggs by, much like his wife. Riggs’ obsession with the title battle seems to stem as a distraction, or maybe even a defense mechanism for his gambling. What is not in question, is Bobby is in denial. It’s a fascinating character study that Faris and Dayton let play out without spoon feeding the audience every little piece of Bobby’s motives.
The supporting cast is also superb. Really, Battle of the Sexes‘s ensemble cast shines even in the smaller moments. Sarah Silverman stands out as the women’s tour manager of all the rogue women’s tennis players that left the big stage to form their own thing. The big stand out for me in the film is Risenborough. She gives a deep, tender and nuanced performance who’s carefree and we feel the chemistry she has with Stone.
Even with the time periods inherent sexism at the forefront, the male sexist characters don’t force it on us. We really believe these guys are who they are, because, well, that’s how they were. Particularly Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer, an especially despicable sexist who is a famous tennis promoter.
Among all the acting, Battle of the Sexes is a strongly crafted film. It’s swift pace leaves you with exactly what you want and nothing more. At a near two hour runtime, the story is so intoxicating and enveloping the film flies by in a flash. If there’s anything that lacks, its wanting to see more of Bobby Riggs.
For a film with an iconic and historic sports moment as its ultimate finale, Battle of the Sexes shines brightest off the court. Instead, we follow Ms. King and her heartfelt and riveting evolution through learning new things, and trying to combat the inequalities faced by female athletes. Battle of the Sexes may not draw everyone in, especially those looking for a straight look at the Battle of the Sexes itself. Rather, it’s a supremely well done, Billie Jean King biopic. It’s one of the few awards-worthy films this year, and should kick off the annual fall onslaught of those types of films. Battle of the Sexes is a beautiful and enthralling film with strong acting. You won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen.
Have you seen Battle of the Sexes? Drop a comment below and let us know what you thought!
Battle of the Sexes
Rated: PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity)
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Bill Pullman, Andrea Risenborough, Elizabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen, Alan Cumming, Eric Christian Olson
Directed by: Valerie Faris and Jonathon Dayton