I’m a pretty big tennis fan. I’m also a fairly new tennis fan. I became interested in the sport during the 2012 Summer Olympics. I turned it on for background noise as I did chores around the house, but it kept grabbing my attention. I couldn’t help but notice how the players’ bodies and minds had to work in such concert – and do so quickly – in order to be even moderately successful. It didn’t take long for me to begin to understand how much strategy, quick-thinking, and astounding control – both physical and mental – was being utilized by every single athlete out on the court. I was hooked. I even flew up to New York for the U.S. Open in the summer of 2013, where I had the distinct pleasure of watching each of my favorites lose in person.
So what I’m getting at is that Battle of the Sexes was a must-see for me. I’ve heard much talk about this legendary match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and all of the festivities that preceded it. Going into the film, I had a pretty good idea of the sequence of events, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t completely on board with watching them re-enacted by Steve Carell and Emma Stone.
For the unfamiliar, sexism was rampant in tennis during the early 1970s (and still is today, if to a lesser degree), as multi-time Grand Slam female champion (including the career Grand Slam title, having won the championships at all four Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S Open) Billie Jean King (Stone) had risen to superstardom and become a household name. Despite that, she and the other women in tennis were being paid much less than the men who were competing at the same level.
The go-to excuse for this at the time was that the men were the big-money draw, though there was little to no evidence to support such a claim. Picking up on the burgeoning controversy, former men’s champion and notorious showman and hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell) is hit by great inspiration. If he becomes the face of chauvinism and challenges King to a Battle of the Sexes tennis match, then everybody can get what he believes they want: money. Of course, for King and her peers, it’s not about the money, but rather the respect and equality that she and the other women have rightfully earned. If she can help female tennis players make strides in those areas, then she will have felt as though she has truly achieved something worthwhile. Yet, she can’t help but question if there’s truly something to be gained by accepting the challenge from Riggs or if she would just be assisting him in making a farce out of everything she holds dear.
As if all of that isn’t enough, King is also struggling with her own sexuality and, as a natural byproduct, her identity. Though she is married, she feels a strong attraction to her female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) and isn’t sure what to do about it. Her primary professional rival, rising star Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), picks up on that confusion and, feeling strongly opposed to homosexuality, Court uses that knowledge as a psychological advantage in an effort to bring King down a notch and taker her place as the number one woman in the world of tennis.
The entire narrative is presented honestly and in a streamlined, straightforward fashion. Co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton keep it very simple and focus on the traditional foundations of solid filmmaking: story, character, dialogue, and casting. All aspects are executed flawlessly and energetically. The story moves along at a nice, brisk pace, never wasting any of its two-hour running time. Each principal character serves a purpose and stands out from the rest as unique, complex individuals. The script provides the cast with sharp, engaging dialogue and they each deliver with excess charisma and compounding charm. The film never ceases to be entertaining while also carrying weight and relevant subtext that rings as true today as it did in 1973.
Though supported by a noteworthy cast, the film belongs to Stone and Carell. As King, Stone brings eternally heartfelt conflict and passion to King’s story. King finds herself fighting important social and personal battles on every front and also realizes she’s in the unique position to make grounds for all of society on each of those fronts. She takes her power very seriously and deigns to use it responsibly, even if it means great personal loss for herself. Carell brings the humor and fun to the proceedings as the fun- (and money-) loving Riggs. Despite all of the misogynistic quotes that fly out Riggs’s perpetually-running mouth, it’s clear that he believes none of it and is solely out to give the public a show. His respect for King is evident and Riggs is ultimately as likable as King is, albeit for eternally different reasons.
Forbes film critic Scott Mendelson joked on Facebook that Battle of the Sexes is Rocky IV if Rocky IV hadn’t been a musical. Funny as that is, structurally speaking, the comparison to Rocky IV isn’t all that absurd. Battle of the Sexes works as an excellent underdog sports film. But, as with any truly great sports film, it’s also a great film independent of any sports content. The movie all at once relates a compelling true story through comedy and drama while also making the case for both women’s and LGBTQ rights, which are both as topical today as they were then, if not more so. The film never drags, always entertains, and both Stone and Carell are perfectly cast and enormously fun to watch. Battle of the Sexes has both its heart and its mind in the right places and provides audiences with a light, yet meaningful crowd-pleasing experience that is sure to bring smiles to faces at a time when the world certainly needs them.
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