Battle of the Sexes
Serving up a Fight for Equal Rights

Battle of the Sexes, the new film from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is to 2017 what Hidden Figures was to 2016.  The movie tackles the subject of equality by seamlessly transporting us to a time when conditions were much worse than they are today, showing us at the same time how far we have come and how far we still need to go.  Whereas Hidden Figures focused on racial equality along with women’s rights, Battle of the Sexes focuses not only on women’s rights, but those of the LBGTQ community.  And it does so in an incredibly entertaining fashion.

The focal point of the movie is the 1973 tennis match between the women’s number one player Billie Jean King and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs, but the movie is in no hurry to get there.  In fact, Billie Jean does not even agree to the match until at least halfway through the movie, following Riggs’ defeat of Margaret Court in the initial “Battle of the Sexes” match.  Instead of rushing, the movie takes its time focus on the characters and the film is that much better for it.

When we are introduced to Billie Jean King, she is already the world’s number one women’s tennis player, but she is put off by the fact that the men’s championship purse is eight times the amount of the women’s and so she, with the help of her manager Gladys Heldman, form their own association.  It is also at this time when the married Billie Jean meets the beautiful hairdresser Marilyn Barnett and they develop a relationship.  This new phase of her life becomes something of a distraction for Billie Jean and her tennis game suffers, but there is no better cure for that than Bobby Riggs’ challenge for gender bragging rights.

When we first meet Bobby, his tennis career is behind him and due to his compulsive gambling habits, he is stuck working a desk job for this wealthy father-in-law.  It is a lifestyle that Bobby, a natural showman, struggles with.  He feels much more comfortable in the spotlight and so he comes up with the idea for the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between him and the top rated female players in the world.  After getting Billie Jean to agree to a match for $100,000, Bobby goes all out to “put the show back in chauvinism.”  But in his quieter moments, the movie shows us that much of what we see from Bobby is all just part of one big act.

It is hard to imagine the casting of this movie being any better.  Coming off her Oscar win for La La Land, Emma Stone seems poised to be in the race once more.  As Billie Jean King, Emma not only looks the part and is believable in the tennis scenes despite her contentions that she is not very skilled at the sport, but she also does well in portraying a woman going through the emotions of a lifestyle change.  As for Steve Carell, it almost feels as if Bobby Riggs is the role he was born to play.  It is a perfect fit, combining both his playful side and his ability to add pathos to characters that might generally be difficult to empathize with.  It also helps the casting that Stone and Carell are practically the exact same ages of the characters they are playing.

Another thing the movie gets just right is its excellent depiction of the 1970s.  Both the look of the film and the culture it portrays feel very authentic.  Much like in Hidden Figures, this helps by showing the audience what the world was like at this time.  In this instance, it is how commonplace sexism was at the time; so much so that it even plagues the commentary of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, who exists in the movie thanks to the actual footage from the event’s broadcast.  It is also a time when the exposure of one’s sexual orientation could lead to career ruin.  The authenticity in the film’s presentation of these topics help reveal the truth behind our culture, exposing the ugly side that will hopefully help inspire modern audiences to continue moving in the right direction.

These cultural rights issues may be important themes in the movie, but this is also a sports movie and there is lots of tennis being played in the film. Most of the tennis scenes feel equally authentic, even when it is Bobby Riggs playing a match dressed as Little Bo Peep leading actual sheep around the court.  The one weakness I found with the movie is that the climactic tennis match is not actually that exciting.  The filmmakers were starting behind the eight ball on this one, not only because the result of the match is well known, but the actual competition wasn’t even that close.  The match was won in three straight sets, all of which were decided by at least two games.  Still, it felt like the movie could have brought us a little more directly into the action instead of spending much of the time in long shots, which not only lacked visual excitement, but also brought into question how much of the action was being performed by the actors themselves.

That small gripe aside, Battle of the Sexes is a very well made movie that deals with important subject matter in an incredibly entertaining way.  It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if this movie is still being talked about come awards season.

Battle of the Sexes is rated PG-13 for “some sexual content and partial nudity.”  There are a couple of sex scenes in the movie, but nothing overly graphic.  Steve Carell does have his “Titanic” portrait painted, though, so there is that.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Battle of the Sexes.