This is a review of the film Battle of the Sexes from Fox Searchlight Productions, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. (Official trailer above.) I had debated going to see this movie, expressing to Ed at one point that it seemed to hold the potential to be an absolute train wreck. But since I was actually around for the original event and watched on television with my father (who was a rabid fan of Riggs in this match) I decided to take the plunge.
One of the most pleasant surprises right from the beginning was the pair of performances put in by Steve Carell and Emma Stone as Riggs and Billie Jean King respectively. They underwent a physical transformation to match the main characters which was startling and based on a combination of my memories, older film clips and reading I’ve done on the subject, they matched the mannerisms of the two players beautifully. The rest of the cast turns in solid performances as well with the possible exception of Sarah Silverman, playing the agent (or whatever it is she does) who becomes annoying almost immediately. But that might just be the personality of the character.
Technically there is a lot to love about the movie. The sound track really adds to the story and the film film work and editing are spot on. Of particular value was the way the film melds original television coverage from the seventies into the tale, revisiting sports media characters such as Howard Cosell and using their original coverage of the buildup to the main event and the actual match. Carell and Stone also do a convincing job of playing tennis, and if they go to body doubles for some of the wide shots covering the court action it’s nearly impossible to tell.
As to the storytelling itself, I saw some early reviews from the conservative side of the fence which complained about the film being a bit too “woke” all the time. Or perhaps far, far too “woke” for its own good. To a certain extent I can relate to that, and if you go into the movie looking for those triggers you’ll quickly become annoyed. But I manged to put that out of my mind and was able to enjoy it for the historical moment it’s intended to cover. Yes, the focus on Billie Jean King’s exit from her marriage and into a lesbian relationship (and the trials of not being able to be “out” and still have professional sports sponsors during that era) does absorb the film far more than the actual tennis match or its cultural significance or lack thereof. But it wasn’t a deal breaker for me.
Riggs is portrayed as a pathetic, gambling addicted hustler, which is supposedly not far off the mark. King is focused, but neurotic, constantly obsessing over the optics of everything in her life, both personal and professional. Their journey toward meeting on the court in Houston is revealed as far more of a publicity stunt, with Riggs not particularly caring all that much about proving men are the superior gender as much as getting the limelight back on himself in the twilight of his public life, while King is more focused on establishing female players as worthy of equal pay and respect, prioritizing that far above who actually wins the match. (Though she desperately does want to win.) I couldn’t leave the theater saying I really liked either of these characters, but I definitely believed them.
Another great aspect of this film is the attention that’s given to the earlier match between Bobby Riggs and King’s number one challenger in the rankings that year, Margaret “The Arm” Court (well played by Jessica McNamee). The film may take some liberties with how that match played out and the reasons for the results, but it’s a part of the tale people rarely hear about because even though it was broadcast on CBS Sports, it didn’t attract massive attention the way the King match did. The film would lead you to believe that Court was simply too “psyched out” by Riggs to play well and he beat her in straight sets. Other observers of the era actually felt that Court tried to play Riggs “too safe” staying far back in far of any hard shots and not rushing the net. Riggs may have been 55 but he was still a faster server and more powerful player than either of them. (At least until he ran out of breath.) King, for her part, figured out how to outsmart him and keep him running the court from side to side until the aging, badly out of shape Riggs quickly began running out of gas.
As a bonus, I’ll include a 12 minute video of the Riggs – Court match which has the introductions and quite a few of the games.
All in all, even with the minor quibbles over how some of the events are depicted, I still enjoyed this movie considerably. But if you don’t have an interest in this particular piece of history you probably won’t find it all that intriguing. On the Hot Air scale, I’ll give it a four, being worth the price of a matinee (which is when I saw it) while not having the sort of special effects and such which make watching it on the big screen mandatory. You could easily enjoy it just as well from home:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
The Battle of the Sexes is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity, but there’s not all that much of either. (Honestly I don’t recall any nudity beyond possibly a bare backside heading into the shower.) The lesbian love scenes might be a bit racy for children I suppose, but not explicit enough to put most of them off. Some mild language is included, but again, nothing too severe. Parents might want to see the movie with children to be able to discuss some of the historical connotations and more adult material, but honestly it should be fine for the whole family in most cases.
And here’s the Riggs – Court match.