In a lot of ways, Battle of the Sexes is a variation on the Rocky narrative: a talented athlete underestimated by the world gets challenged by a former champion, and through the power of hard work and love, catches the showboating opponent off-guard, putting on an excellent tennis match and eventually proving their worth. If it had simply been a variation on this American legend, it would still be worth seeing. However, what makes Battle of the Sexes so much more is the fact that it not only takes on more weight and ideas than just this simple notion, it does so through across-the-board cinematic triumphs, from cinematography to costumes to writing to acting. Battle of the Sexes isn’t just a twist on a classic; it is a classic in its own right, as a sports movie, as a biopic, as a love story, and as an inspiration.
It’s the early 1970s, and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is the face of tennis. She’s one of the best female players of all-time, she’s fresh off a series of Grand Slams, and she’s a national celebrity. However, things change when she discovers that women are only being paid 1/8th the amount the male winners are ($1,500 against a $12,000 grand prize). “Men are just inherently better players,” she’s told by the face of tennis, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). In anger, King leads a coup amongst female tennis players, led by Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to form their own tennis league where women are paid a respectable, equal (or as much as they can earn) amount. However, when former Wimbeldon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) decides to reinvent his career and pay off his gambling debts as the “chauvinist tennis star,” and challenges any female tennis player to beat him for a $100,000 grand prize, King eventually finds herself backed into a corner, and agrees to play him in the media-dubbed “Battle of the Sexes.” Things are further complicated as King begins to fall in love with her female hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) in a time when being gay could cost you your entire career and social standing.
It’s really impressive that directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton manage to pull this film off, because they are juggling so many balls throughout (I’m so sorry for that pun). It’s a sports movie like Rocky, a cause movie like Norma Rae, an LGBT movie like Blue Is The Warmest Colour, and it has to be evenly balanced between the clear lead in Billie Jean King and the clear co-star Bobby Riggs. It’s actually amazing how carefully they balance Bobby and Billie’s stories, considering this film is essentially a King biopic. She is our commanding lead throughout, as we watch her fight against oppression, her struggle with her sexuality, and her quest to be the best. Quite frankly, a lesser movie would have just focused on her and left Bobby as a sexist afterthought. And yet, Bobby isn’t portrayed as a sexist afterthought. On the contrary, he’s actually portrayed rather sympathetically. Granted, the film doesn’t approve of his sexist shenanigans, but it doesn’t outright condemn him either. Bobby is almost Shakespearean in nature. He was once a great, commanding player with a hypnotic personality who was forgotten in time. It’s no wonder when he’s given the chance to reclaim the spotlight, he jumps at it. It’s also fascinating, because the film doesn’t really portray him as believing the stuff he says. He’s almost a Wrestling Heel, playing the bad guy because he knows that it’ll get him attention. In a lot of ways, the reason Steve Carell is so good at the role is because he’s just playing Michael Scott again, but with bigger teeth: a well-meaning, kind-of-sexist moron who wants to do the right thing and gets in his own way. By giving Bobby equal time and respect, it doesn’t diminish King’s story, it fleshes out a rich history with someone whom King bonded with later in life because he wasn’t really such an assh*le.
The film avoids making Bobby the villain because it has a larger statement to make about sexism as a whole. As much as we’ve come to imagine that a sexist is this truly vile man who berates and abuses women (something easy to imagine with the past few months of news, both in Hollywood and abroad), that’s not usually what we get. No, the real sexists are the ones quietly pulling the strings, setting up a rigged system against women and then explaining that it would just be too complicated to take that system apart. This is the system that Battle of the Sexes is interested in confronting, the wall of powerful men who just don’t believe women have the power and look down on them “for their own good.” Oh, they pretend to care, giving us the “I have a wife of twenty years” excuse, and hiring women to work in their bars, but they’re creeps at heart. We see this in Tom Kenny, and John C. McGinley, and in a fantastic decision, in the real-life commentary of Howard Cossell, who is superimposed into the film and feels super-leery as he makes inappropriate comments about King and stands eerily close to Natalie Morales’ Casals. However, nowhere is it more true than with Bill Pullman. By making the likable Pullman the face of these naysayers, who explain that women just can’t earn the same as men, or aren’t as good as men, or that women should remain silent, we see the true face of sexism: the appallingly attractive face of a “nice guy” who just wants us to see the “truth.” The film drives this point home through dialogue and through visual cues – the film’s sexist men literally watch the game inside a “boys’ club” – and it makes for a better film. In a time when ex-Google employees are making the news for writing sh*tty essays about how “women just biologically aren’t as smart as men,” people continue to hypothesize about how Bobby Riggs threw the match, and Gavin McInnes continues to be a thing, it is much more accurate to put a true face on the cause instead of attacking its lowest form.
However, outside of the film’s story and message, this is just, all-around, a well-executed film. I’m a huge proponent of Little Miss Sunshine, but the film feels like a warm-up compared to what Faris and Dayton accomplish here. This is a very classically constructed film, taking its cues from the great inspirational 40s films of old. For example, to build sexual tension, instead of having some sort of over-the-top sex scene, or the sexualization or commodification of lesbianism, this film treats the simple act of hair styling as a sexual act, dancing around Billie Jean and Marilyn as they flirt and style hair. It’s a sexy, breathtaking scene, and is the perfect example of how to build up sexuality without exploitation. When Billie’s husband Larry (a great and handsome Austin Stowell) deduces King’s discretions, he doesn’t respond the way we expect. The camera lingers on his face as he grapples with his emotions before following him to ice his wife’s battered and bruised knees, with the camera capturing both of their knowing and disappointed faces. There’s no blow-up, no fight, no chauvinistic threats. He’s someone who deeply cared about a relationship, but things just can’t work out. It’s a beautiful, tragic moment that the cinematography gets captures just right. And speaking of cinematography, I want to talk about a subtle moment where the camera pushes in on the face of the waitress in Jack Kramer’s boys’ club, past their horrified faces as King wipes the floor with Riggs, to reveal the subtle hint of a smile. She’s a minor character, but one who caught my eye early on as she was forced to deal with the sexism even more than King was, and by giving her that look, it spoke volumes about the film’s message and execution. I’m still smiling about that brief glimpse as a write this.
My only two complaints with this movie are how the characters played by Alan Cumming and Bill Pullman are drawn. Unlike the rest of these characters, who are three-dimensional, flawed, beautiful, well-meaning, and honest, these characters just ring slightly false. That’s not necessarily because of the performances – both actors are doing stellar work. It’s just that the characters are just written a little thin. Pullman’s Jack Kramer often feels as a straw man, a stand-in for every sexist ever, so that every bad thing, ever will come from his mouth, leaving him without any structure as a character. Meanwhile, Cumming’s Ted Tinling almost plays like a Fairy Gay, a magical homosexual who knows everything and anything, commenting sassily on the film’s progressions like some sort of guardian angel. Now it is true that both characters have strong moments – Pullman is giving it his all throughout, and Cumming’s final speech is one of the film’s most beautiful moments, but it just feels like the film is missing something with their roles.
However, even with their poorly written characters, the two give excellent performances, sitting alongside a cast of even better ones. Everyone is at the top of their game in this film, not least of all Emma Stone. Stone truly embodies King, making her a wonderfully three-dimensional hero that can stand with the best of them throughout history. You root and feel for her throughout, and it’s easily one of Stone’s best performances. Meanwhile, Carell continues to bring a pathos to characters that would otherwise be unlikable, and I can’t think of anyone who could have played the role better. The film’s biggest secret weapon is arguably Sarah Silverman, who brings her scathing wit and charisma to a character who has decidedly been on the outskirts, pushing her well into the forefront thanks to her killer one-liners and stylish streak of grey. As the spouses, Elisabeth Shue and Austin Stowell are both excellent in their background roles, put upon by the late-breaking discoveries in their spouses’ lives and breaking our hearts along the way. At least we get the wonderful Andrea Riseborough to give us hope about love in the world. Other actors in smaller roles I loved include Fred Armisen, Jessica McNamee, Eric Christian Olsen, Natalie Morales and John C. McGinley, each of whom take their minor screentime and run with it, making this one of the best ensembles of the year.
When it came down to trying to figure out the final grade for this film, there is only one image that comes to mind. It’s not one of the many frames I loved in this film. It is not even one of the many performances I loved. It was instead the sound coming from behind me, as two women openly wept as Billie Jean had her moment of glory. The film created in them that visceral of a reaction. And I realized that while I wasn’t crying, that was ok. It wasn’t my movie to cry to. I was just along for the ride, to empathize and to cheer. And I loved every minute of it.