Movie Review: ‘Battle of the Sexes’
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, and Bill Pullman
Plot: Retired Bobby Riggs challenges new superstar Billie Jean King to an exhibition tennis match to prove men are better than women.
To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the marketing campaign for this movie. Two very bright stars playing two real life people in a landmark sporting event that will, whether it ends up nominated or not, get automatic Oscar attention was enough reason for me to put in a little effort to see it, as far as I am concerned. Seeing the trailer was never necessary. I still haven’t seen it, however, this was a completely different movie than I thought it was going to be.
The biggest thing is how little Steve Carell is in it. Judging by his prominence on the poster and the title referring to their legendary match, you would think he had a bigger part. In fact, any scenes that he has where he isn’t sharing it with Billie Jean or one of her cohorts seems superfluous. That isn’t to say that Steve Carell doesn’t do a good job. I don’t know much about the nuance of Riggs’ personality that he was able to capture, but he sure as hell dialed into the much talked about insufferable nature.
Narratively speaking, the film is much more about Billie Jean King’s efforts to create what will eventually be the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). When the prize difference between the men’s and women’s matches in the Pacific Southwest Championship raised from 2.5x to 8x as much, despite filling the same stadiums and King getting a significant amount of press, King was able to rally 8 other female tennis pros and a tennis reporter, Gladys Heldman (played by a particularly Don Draper-esque Sarah Silverman) to cut their own path. This makes them the target of Pacific Southwest chairman, Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman. Kramer is essentially the clearer opposite sex antagonist in the titular battle.
It is in the intimacy of King’s journey that Battle of the Sexes really shines. First and foremost, she is given a dignified and honorable retelling of her professional ambitions and success, one that is exciting and charming, thanks in no small part to one of Emma Stone’s most likable performances yet. Her journey is also admirably depicted as symbols of both women and LGBTQIA liberation movements, no surprise as this is King’s real life legacy. Publicly, her quest to find equal footing with her male counterparts has all the makings of a sports masterpiece, except her ultimate showdown with Bobby Riggs is an anticlimactic end. Privately, she starts to question and explore her sexuality with a hair dresser she meets on the tour. It is as sweet, romantic, and sexy as any other heteronormative romantic-comedy you could see this year.
I’m not entirely sure why they did some of the things that they did. Did they think Billie Jean’s story wouldn’t be enough for the runtime? Or were they worried about not giving Bobby at least close to equal time? Either way, they end up distracting from the better parts of the movie, which are still worth seeing.