Battle of the Sexes (2017)
In 1973, a tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became the most watched televised sporting event of all time. Riggs was past his prime and in an effort to regain the lost spotlight, he claimed that even at the age of 55 he would be able to easily beat the best female tennis player. Billie Jean King (one of the women he challenged), was both extremely successful and an outspoken advocate for gender equality. This biopic starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell covers the famous match as well as the effect it had on their personal lives. I truly believe that Emma Stone can do no wrong, and in recent dramatic performances Carrell has proven to me that he is more than just a comedian. It feels like a movie year where Hollywood has embraced empowered female characters and this film should join that list. I love biopics. I love sports. And I expect that I will love Battle of the Sexes.
Can we just take a moment to recognize the incredible talent of Emma Stone? Every year she seems to wow me more. Her career has skyrocketed recently beginning with her wonderful supporting role in Birdman , then her Oscar-winning leading performance in La La Land, and now she has equaled that with her portrayal of Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes. From her fiery, outspoken strength on gender equality to her passionate, awkward confusion over her feelings for a same-sex lover to her determination and physical dominance on the tennis court, Stone captures every quality of BJK perfectly. Though the eventual famous tennis match between 29-year old BJK and 55-year old Bobby Riggs may give the film its central plot, make no mistake that this is truly King’s story.
The film’s retelling of Billie Jean King’s fight for equal pay and equal rights was very insightful. In getting back to the core of what feminism truly is about, we repeatedly hear BJK expressing the strengths that women can bring to the tennis association (and in other aspects of life) without ever speaking ill of men. She fights with facts, and the comedic way in which the film displays a widespread chauvinistic response to her logical claims is uncomfortably realistic for the time. Riggs, played wonderfully by Steve Carrell, is an excellent contrast. Generally known as a hustler with major gambling problems, even BJK acknowledges at one point that his extreme chauvinism is more likely for show to help sell the spectacle of their match than truly how he feels about women. We get to explore some aspects of his home life like a broken relationship with his son, a reliance on drugs to keep his body in top shape, and a failing marriage as they lead him down the path to the main event.
But again, Battle of the Sexes is really all about King, and very little about tennis. Despite the titular match being incredibly well shot and riveting, there wasn’t much other tennis. The film focuses greatly on BJK’s exploration of a same-sex relationship resulting in a love affair that would affect her deeply. This wistful romance, however, occurs while King is still married to her husband Larry, and this is where the film lost me. I watched closely, waiting for the moment when consequences would come, but ultimately the movie has nothing good to say about commitment in relationships, and instead promotes a message of “love who you love” without being ashamed. That’s all well and good, if you’re single, but BJK wasn’t.
Battle of the Sexes is a compelling and hilarious biopic that will keep viewers engaged and interested for its entire runtime. It is also a welcome history lesson and reminder that though we’ve come far in women’s rights, there are still more bridges to cross. The film’s romanticizing of King’s affair, coupled with showing no attempts at marriage reconciliation, was a real downer for me despite the beautiful way in which the relationship with her lover was depicted. Its cinematography and stellar score by Nicholas Britell are also major positives and create a solid all-around picture. BJK was a pioneer of her time and everyone should know her story.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.