The Battle of the Sexes Fights the Good Fight

Overview: The fight for equal pay for tennis athletes culminates in a final match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 121 minutes.

 A Long Road Ahead: We should be closer to equality than we are. This is true when talking about our culture’s treatment of LGBTQ rights, race, and gender. It can sometimes be easy to assume that we have made great strides. However, taking a closer look at a seminal event in regards to equality can present us with some very difficult truths. The Battle of the Sexes, is at its root, about equality between men and women, especially in the realm of athletic competition, but also touches on LGBTQ issues. The context that the film provides is important to keep in mind as a reminder of not only where we came from but how far we have yet to go.

Oscar Worthy: The Battle of the Sexes, without a doubt is carried by a singular performance. Emma Stone, already an Oscar-winning actress for her turn in last year’s La La Land, delivers easily her career best in her portrayal of Billie Jean King. It is never easy to inhabit the role of a real person, especially one who has been shown on television for most of her adult life. Stone has the additional weight of playing this role for only a small portion of the character’s life. Her childhood is barely touched upon and her adult life after this major event is only shown in text. Stone has the responsibility of giving the public a private view of everything that Miss King’s life encapsulated, literally and symbolically. Given the strength and good humor demonstrated throughout King’s public life, the moments of pure emotion are paramount to our connection with her. And luckily, Stone never falters under this heavy weight. This private version of Billie Jean King, if anything, make us wish the movie spent even more time with her and maybe even explored her life after tennis.

Misogyny On All Sides: The other gladiator in this battle is Bobby Riggs, played to the hilt by Steve Carell. Carell is good with what he is given, but it seems that the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, enjoy his antics a bit too much. This leads to the film, and by extension the audience, letting his misogyny off the hook. They even go to the lengths to include a worse misogynist in Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and tell us through dialogue that his machinations behind the scenes are infinitely more damaging than Riggs’s ridiculous behavior on and off the court. This may be true from a power perspective, but many of Rigg’s attending supporters wear Riggs’s horrific statements emblazoned on shirts and they are not doing so because of Kramer. Frankly, Carell’s best moments are when he shares the screen with Stone. The friendship between King and Riggs is infinitely more interesting than Riggs parading around in a Little Bo Peep costume. There is a complexity involving equal rights, humor, and a grudging respect that could be explored. However, Carell’s joy does offer many opportunities to explore the world of the 1970’s, which was lovingly recreated by the film. Besides Stone, this may be the film’s greatest strength. Everything from the fashion to the setting is perfectly on point. As a period piece, The Battle of the Sexes is impeccable.

Equality On Many Fronts: It may be surprising that some of the film’s strongest statements regarding equality are to do with queer expression as opposed to equal rights for women. Despite the fact that the film opens with a strong scene featuring King and her compatriot, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), figuratively and literally bursting through the doors of an all-male club to demand equal pay, the tender moments between King and Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) seem to be more lasting. Riseborough’s introduction and subsequent flirting with Stone may seem shy and coy to a modern audience, but given the time period these interactions are bold and filled with drama and yearning. As this relationship grows, despite being told repeatedly about Billie Jean King’s marital status, this is a couple worth rooting for. The danger of the time is wonderfully channeled through not only King’s fear and worry, but also the performance of another gay character, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming). There are certainly moments where the message of equality, both immediately achievable and in the future, is delivered bluntly, but that is to be expected given the situation presented in the film. During a literal battle of the sexes, equal treatment would be at the forefront of these character’s minds. But as the credits roll, one is left wondering how far we’ve come, not only from the 50’s to the 70’s, but from the 70’s until now, as certain lives are left in the shadows.

Overall: The Battle of the Sexes boasts great performances, believable 1970s world building, and a blend of comedy and drama. However, because of the complexity of the relationships and the time, a subtle look at Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is never fully explored. And unfortunately, the unwillingness to make Riggs a true villain hamstrings the film’s final point.

Grade: B+

Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures