By: Brett Slaughenhaupt – Movie Columnist
A couple of years from now, you may be surfing through channels and come across “Battle of the Sexes.” It’s already thirty minutes in so you tell yourself you’ll watch maybe ten minutes more and move on to something else. Before you know it, the film is over. This is the best way to describe my immediate perception after watching it the first time. It is the Sunday afternoon of films, not dissimilar to “La La Land” from last year, or the TNT staple “Shawshank Redemption.” Don’t get me wrong; I mean this as a compliment.
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The film starts far away from the actual Battle of the Sexes match, but not so much from the battle of the sexes that was happening as a result of rampant sexism women’s tennis players were experiencing (oh how far we’ve come). After hearing about the disparity in prize money at a major US tournament – women being given 8x less than the equivalent man – King and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) put their money where their mouth was and boycotted the tournament with eight other players. While putting herself in that much spotlight risked her career, it showcased the influence and power, both on and off the field, Billie Jean King had as a women’s tennis player.
As Billie Jean was off trying to change the gender dynamic in professional tennis, Bobby Riggs was trying to find a way back in. He was a 55-year-old retired tennis pro with a gambling problem and troubles at home. Wanting to build opposition to King’s progressive work, Riggs decided he was going to put the “show back in chauvinism.” In doing so, he brought about the battle of the sexes by challenging the top women’s tennis players to match, knowing it would put him back in the spotlight. This caricature he created built attention across the country as he first defeated Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).
King’s initial reluctance to play Riggs – he initially reached out to her before Court, but she denied him – was due to not wanting to be in the spotlight any more than she already was. Simultaneous to the Riggs issue, King was personally dealing with some identity-crises as she started an affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), her hairdresser. This segment of the film is sensitively portrayed by these two capable actors. From the first haircut to the first night in the hotel, each glance and kiss feels authentic and deserved. It was only after Court lost did King feel an obligation to her fellow women’s players to put Bobby in his place. What ensues is the titular “battle of the sexes” event, a match that was witnessed by over 50 million people at the time.
“Battle of the Sexes” is the perfect amount of entertaining and thought-provoking – the type of film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, but comfortable, all the while. A well drawn out script by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) and competent, unshowy direction from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) create a consistently solid foundation upon which the most interesting aspect can shine: the perfectly cast real-life characters of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Emma Stone and Steve Carell are perfectly cast in their respective roles. They have just enough chemistry to feel like they exist together in this world, without feeling like they also played father/daughter in a 2011 film. Both actors are putting in one of the best performances of their careers. While Carell’s Riggs calls for more broad strokes of acting, the film never lets him get too far away from reality, and Stone’s King is perfectly grounded in the best performance of her career since “Birdman.” I won’t be surprised if and when she is nominated for Best Actress, coming off her win last year for “La La Land.”
All around this film perfectly captures an endearing story that happens to put a mirror up to current issues of gender our country is experiencing.
Photo Courtesy of deadline.com and history.com
This article has been edited to correct the age of Booby Riggs from 53 to 55 years old.