Review by Jean Lowerison
Who wouldn’t love a story in which a media-hungry male tennis-playing clown challenges the most successful woman tennis player of the time to a “battle of the sexes” on the court – and loses?
Some of the chauvinist pigs in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, that’s who, but the true story told in Battle of the Sexes did gave a boost to the U.S. equal rights movement.
Cast your mind back to 1972, when Billie Jean King won the U.S. Women’s Open, and promptly asked Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), patriarch of the USLTA, for equal pay for equal (tennis) work – and was laughed out of his office. The Equal Rights Amendment had been passed by Congress that year, but failed to be ratified by enough states to make it law, and Kramer wasn’t about to admit that men and women tennis players could compete on the same court. At least not for the same money.
However, King was not to be brushed off that easily. She and “World Tennis” magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) started the Women’s Tennis Association, prompting Kramer to make good on his threat to toss women out of the USLTA altogether.
Bobby Riggs, former tennis champ turned full-time hustler and addicted gambler, saw a PR opportunity and challenged Australian champion Margaret Court (winner of more tennis titles than any player in history) to a match, saying he wanted to play the best. But Court (Jessica McNamee) did not take the match seriously and was beaten in straight sets.
Riggs immediately offered $100,000 to any woman who could best him on the court, knowing that was a challenge Billie Jean could not resist. The rest is history.
Valerie Fires and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) give us Emma Stone as Billie Jean and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. The film has its formulaic, even hokey moments, but these two players were such compelling characters off the court that the film fascinates from beginning to end.
Stone has the square-shouldered look and (mostly) the solid determination she will need to take this match, even while being sideswiped by unexpectedly falling for hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, wondrously played by Andrea Riseborough. Heldman had hired a salon to spruce up the women’s appearance shortly after she’d secured WTA sponsorship from Virginia Slims. The affair didn’t just surprise Billie Jean; it threatened her career and her marriage to businessman Larry King.
Carell, everybody’s favorite affable goof, succeeds here in being utterly offensive, as Riggs seemed to take delight in doing. He’s surrounded by sexist pigs who may seem stereotypical to those who weren’t there (Howard Cosell, Jack Kramer and all those smirking USLTA guys watching the match who are sure Riggs will win), but those who remember the time and the match will recognize them.
Battle of the Sexes may not be a hard-hitting documentary, but it doesn’t aim to be. Dayton and Faris are more interested in focusing on the emotional lives of those involved. This film is consistently engaging. That’s enough.
We’ve come a long way, baby, but there’s also a long road ahead of us, as any woman who still isn’t getting anywhere near what a man makes for the same work can tell you.
Equality supporters of both genders.