The real life Battle of the Sexes is a moment in time that I knew very little about until I saw this film. The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was the most-watched televised sports event of its time. The film does a beautiful job of marrying history with cinema in the re-telling of this story.
Emma Stone (King) is transformed into her subject. Not only does her tennis game look realistic in this film, but her facial features, body language and personal traits are all aligned with what we know of Billie Jean King. In the film, we catch during a time where she’s exploring her sexuality while fighting for equality in the male dominated world of professional tennis. Talk about pressure! Stone beautifully plays off of Steve Carrell who plays Bobby Riggs, the 55-year-old tennis showman. Riggs was known as more talk and less action when it came to tennis at this point in his life, and for some reason felt he had something to prove. So he challenged King to a match and as history dictates, it did not lean in his favor. What started as a publicity stunt, came to mean more about women’s liberation than a simple game of tennis.
Andrea Riseborough plays King’s love interest, Marilyn Barnett. The scenes where the pair are discovering their feelings are so intense I found myself catching my breath a few times. I credit that to the actresses but also the intimate directing of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine).
The directing duo managed to film not only a lively sports movie about competitive tennis, but a coming out story, a love story, and a heartbreaking story at the same time. You can tell a lot of care went into the making of this film because the subject matter is a hot button issue, even now, and they wanted to get it right.
Some of the sexist comments about women made by men in the film are laughable when you hear them. It’s hard to imagine that men openly demeaned and talked down to women like that back then. But it was part of their every day reality which is why it’s important that stories like this get told. We need to celebrate the women who paved the way in their field so that future generations can have equality.
Billie Jean found the Women’s Tennis Association because the men were getting paid more than the women even though the women brought in just as much of an audience and sold just as many tickets to matches. To this day the WTA is a prestigious organization filled with professional tennis players.
And we have to talk about Steve Carrell who is perfection as Bobby Riggs. A showman with an inner sadness is not an easy character to pull off but from what I’ve read and how Steve described him, that’s exactly who Bobby Riggs was. He said and did awful stunts to demean King before their match and further support mysogenistic views. Carrell says he did a lot of research and watched old interviews of Riggs so he could understand him more. One thing I found interesting is that even though Riggs put King through all that hype before their match, she says she was friends with him until he passed away in 1995.
This movie is going to strike a nerve with some people. It will make them uncomfortable because of the exploration of sexuality, the talk of equality and feminism, and the bold mysogeny which is still rampant in our society today. While we have come a long way, even Billie Jean admits it’s not far enough. There is still a lot to be done for women’s equality and Battle of the Sexes is a beautiful way to get conversations started and keep the fires stoked for feminism.
Battle of the Sexes opens Sept. 22nd. It stars Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Elisabeth Shue, Adrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman and Bill Pullman.