You just can’t escape the timely relevance of the 1973 story that lies at the heart of “Battle of the Sexes,” a pro-feminism romp from filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The true story of the historic tennis match between women’s #1 player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is an inspiring yet sobering wake-up call for all women and girls currently dealing with sexism in our society.
Riggs, a hustler and overt misogynist, created a heated rivalry between the talented King. Their on court tug-of-war was such a captivating spectacle that their match became one of the most watched televised sports events of all time (with over 90 million viewers tuning in from around the world).
Carell embodies Riggs with a confident asshattery that somehow comes effortlessly, and most supporting roles are nothing more than throwaway parts (with the exception of Sarah Silverman as a chain smoking manager and Andrea Riseborough as a flirty hair dresser). Make no mistake, this is Stone’s show through and through. She is strong and subtle as King, physically transforming into an athlete yet creating a sympathetic emotional side to her real life character.
King was a staunch champion for gender equality and is one of the most heralded figures of the modern day women’s movement, and the film touches on some of her more personal battles as she internally wrestles with her sexuality. The film shines when it becomes a beautiful lesbian love story that was forbidden at the time (it’s truly unbelievable that LGBT folks are still having to fight to defend their human rights).
The film becomes a time capsule of 1970s sociology, a time where women were openly mocked for being lesser than their male counterparts. There are a few lines of shocking dialogue that was taken from actual historic footage, and it’ll make your blood boil that not only were women talked down to in the past, but the parallels to present day are equally alarming. (Political nerds can’t help but draw comparisons to last year’s Clinton / Trump election season).
“Battle of the Sexes” is far from a grand slam, however. Folks expecting a triumphant sports nail-biter will be disappointed, and those close-minded viewers unaware of Billie Jean’s sexuality may be shocked by a fairly tame love scene (for a PG-13 rating, at least). The film becomes bogged down in its final moments, insistent on presenting a historically accurate, play-by-play representation of the famous match. Even if you know the outcome of the match, you may find yourself cheering internally every time King scores. In between all the tennis action is a bland screenplay that’s packed with dumbed-down explanatory dialogue and long, half-hearted speeches. And just when we get a clever shot like a particularly effective scene on an escalator, the old reliable clichés of hand held shaky-cam work and shadowy mirror reflections take center stage yet again.
Still, this is a film worth seeing if only to serve as a reminder that this is a battle women and LGBT folks are still fighting today. King worked hard to tear down inequality and sexism, and women all over the world (and especially those in the world of sports) owe her. Ladies, we’ve come so far — too far — to allow our rights and social victories to continue to be pushed backward. Consider this your rousing warning to step into action.