Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

The 1970s tennis match to prove men’s superiority was a turning point for women

Battle of the Sexes (Souboj pohlaví)
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
With Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen

Once upon a time, actually in the 1970s, women in sports were looked on as an amusing novelty but really just a distraction from the real players, who were men.

Women also were paid much less on the professional circuit than men were. And the idea that women should stay at home was still pretty common.

Female tennis champion Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) was one of the loudest voices for equality on the playing field, and for opening up tennis to everyone, not just country club members. And for women to determine their own destinies.

But it was not an easy fight.

On the other side was Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former tennis champ who was hungry for publicity. He tried to put the show in male chauvinism, as he said.

The film Battle of the Sexes takes us back to the events leading up to the still famous tennis match in 1973, with a bit of artistic license.

Recently, the world of figure skating came under scrutiny with I, Tonya, a satirical comedy focusing on one of sports darker moments. Battle of the Sexes is the other side of the coin, a riveting look at athletes rising to their highest levels.

At the start of The Battle of the Sexes, the amount of male chauvinism — now just called sexism — in tennis becomes apparent when tennis association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) openly tells women that they simply don’t deserve big prizes, even though their ticket sales are comparable to those of men. Women don’t need money and men do, seems to be his main argument.

Billie Jean King starts her own association for women, with the help of magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Also lending a hand is dress designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who is pleased that he can finally use some colors on the uniforms.

Ted Tinling and his partner make catty conversation that works as a sort of Greek chorus, reminding people of not only the situation faced by women but also the place of the LGBT community back then. Tinling was gay and as the plot develops, Billie Jean King explores a relationship with another woman, while being married at the same time. This was not well-known at the time, but King has since been open about her orientation and has become an icon.

King and her struggle for equality is the main focus of the film, but Bobby Riggs steals the show. It is hard not to like the character, and Steve Carell captures not only the look but the enticing bluster of the hustler who even tries to start a card game at a meeting for people with a gambling addiction. Gambling isn’t the problem, it is being bad at it, he says.

And his antics just get more outrageous as the film goes on.

While the women struggle to build a new tennis league of their own, facing obstacles created by the men’s association, Riggs goes from one publicity stunt to another such as photo opportunities where he uses a frying pan instead of a tennis racket. He even poses nude in a magazine.

The tone of the film never stays dark very long, as Riggs is always up to something.

The film evokes the feel of Rocky, as the underdog — King — prepares for a match that not only will affect her but the perception of women everywhere.

King trains, running and practicing her footwork, while Riggs sips cocktails and looks for more sponsors.

The match between King and Riggs takes up a fair amount of screen time, and it was quite as a big a deal in real life in 1973 as depicted, if not more so. The film accurately captures the grand entrances the players made and the light, jovial nature before the actual play, which was much tougher than either player imagined it would be.

Emma Stone is not quite as successful at capturing the spirit of Billie Jean King as Carell was with his character. King was competent on the court, but not very charismatic. Stone makes King seem a bit more open and fun loving, which is perhaps good. The film is after all a sports comedy and not a documentary.

The flaws with the film are minor ones, such as designer Ted Tinling making a speech to King about the future that just doesn’t ring true. He expresses nice sentiments, but you can tell it is the screenwriter and not the designer talking. Tinling also was completely bald, while Cumming sports a handsomely quaffed head of hair.

The male tennis officials and Jack Kramer, in particular, are also demonized pretty heavily, but it is hard to support their positions these days. Every film needs a villain.

Riggs died in 1995, but Billie Jean King is still around and she said the film was accurate on its main points. King and Riggs were friends after the match, up until Riggs’ death.

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