The name, Billie Jean King, meant absolutely nothing to me before going into The Battle of the Sexes. This could be a reflection of my age, lack of general knowledge, or a telltale sign that I don’t really care for sports! However, stepping out of the cinema I was determined to find out more!
In 1973 Women’s World No.1 tennis player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), is determined to see equality for women and her fight begins with equal pay for female tennis players. The glimpse we get of the culture she’s up against is best summarized by the tennis association’s top dog, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman): “Business, sports, you name it, at the very top it’s a man’s world.” When she makes a bold move to prove she’s serious, washed up Wimbledon triple-winner, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), challenges her to a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ to prove once and for all that women can’t compete in the same league as men.
Emma Stone gives an OUTSTANDING performance as Billie Jean King. From delivering a convincing tennis serve (which I understand took a lot of training to achieve) to portraying the complexities of someone pulled in several different directions, Stone nailed every angle. Her self discovery during her affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and the tension between her and her actual-Ken-doll husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), were some of the most compelling scenes I have witnessed in awhile! Andrea Riseborough was absolutely stunning as the alluring hairdresser who falls in love with Billie Jean. Even though their journey felt a little underdeveloped and unresolved overall, her scenes are some of the most memorable.
I don’t know if Bobby Riggs really was as absurd and buffoonish as Steve Carell portrays him, but he’s certainly memorable. Riggs sees his opportunity to desperately grasp at one last chance in the spotlight when King begins her own Women’s Tennis Association. His public goal becomes to ‘put the show back in chauvinism’ and prove once and for all that he is the best there is in the Tennis world. The film’s attempts to humanize Riggs and even suggest his actions were harmless in comparison to the ‘real bad guy’, Kramer, seemed a little at odds with the overall message. In fact, the glimpses into his home life felt pretty superfluous, even if they did give Elisabeth Shue a few moments to shine as Bobby’s wife, Priscilla.
The thing about the Battle of the Sexes that will really stick with me, is the realization that things really haven’t changed that much. When Bobby Riggs (and almost every male character in the film) would casually say things like “Now, don’t get me wrong, I love women, in the bedroom and in the kitchen”, I would find myself laughing at the absurdity of it being an acceptable way to talk about women (publicly or not). Then I would stop laughing as I recalled recent political events in the USA and several events in my own country which demonstrate that these attitudes are still alive and flourishing today. The film doesn’t try to hide the obvious parallels it’s drawing. A women in the crowd of the Battle of the Sexes tennis match even holds up a sign saying “Billie Jean for President”.
There is a lot going on in this movie. A tennis show down, women’s rights, Billie Jean coming to terms with her own sexuality and all the stuff going on with Bobby Riggs. Overall it felt like a little too much was crammed in there to really do any part of this incredible story justice. It’s still definitely worth watching though! The acting is superb, the tension is tense (lol) and yes, even the Tennis is a lot of fun!