BATTLE OF THE SEXES Serves Up a Winner
At a time when women are fighting for equality in the boardroom, Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, bring the story of Billie Jean King’s epic battle for equality and respect on the court and in the court of opinion to the big screen in BATTLE OF THE SEXES.
Billed as a movie about the tennis match pitting the world’s best women’s tennis player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), against self-proclaimed male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), BATTLE OF THE SEXES tells more the story of King’s life than the match which eventually resulted in women achieving equality with their male counterparts. Despite a rumored 90 million tuning into the “Bobby Rigg Circus”, most born after 1973 will now only learn what King did for women’s sports and for the LGBTQ movement.
Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay which King recently declared was 99% accurate finds King and agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) choosing to break off from the USLTA to form their own organizing body after promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) offers King and the women participating in the Pacific Southwest Open a purse eight times less than the men’s winner. With a recently completed men’s and women’s final resulting in similar-sized crowds and men not outdrawing women by eight times during other matches, King and Heldman convince eight other women to form what would eventually be called the Virginia Slims Series and known today as the Women’s Tennis Association.
Dayton and Faris’s decision to take us deep into King’s personal and professional life from 1970-1973 reveals how she went from a success on the court to a pioneer in sports all while trying to understand her sexual identity. The directors’ portrayal of a married King falling in lust for the first time with a woman, her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), provides what may be the most awkward and most intimate scene on camera in years. Strong performances by Stone and Riseborough and the directors’ up close shots make for a truly jarring, yet much-needed encounter to understand what King was experiencing at that time. Stone successfully captures the struggle of juggling her public persona as a married woman and her passion for Barnett while still attempting to stay focused on her career. When King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell) discovers Bille Jean’s infidelity, the moviegoer experiences the confusion and pain he is going through and the awkward moments that follow when he and Billie Jean’s “mistress” are in the same room. Two people who love Billie Jean but who Larry describes as “sideshows” as tennis is her real true love. With only a few aware of King’s secret, it is interesting to see how the press portrayed Barnett. In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Curry Kilpatrick writes, “Zealously shielded by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, a former Beverly Hills haircutter who at times literally threw her own wispy body between King and the onrushing media.” Little did they realize the true relationship between King and Barnett.
Carell, playing the former Wimbledon and U.S. National Champion, effectively balances Riggs as a degenerate gambler and lifelong hustler and as a man desperate to keep his marriage intact to second wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). Watching Carell hustle women’s champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to play him in the widely unknown Mother’s Day Massacre and then spin that win into a match against King (after unsuccessfully convincing her to play him initially) is what made Riggs so unique as a real-life character. Carell seems born for this role and shines best during a scene at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and when he is hamming it up for the cameras in advance of the big match.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES ultimately succeeds as a result of its first-rate cast. Academic Award winner Emma Stone disappears into the role of the tennis marvel while Academy Award nominee Steve Carell’s comedic abilities capture the lovable Riggs. BATTLE OF THE SEXES star-studded cast also includes supporting roles by Broadway stars, Alan Cumming (dynamite as fashion designer Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling), Saturday Night Live (NBC) alumni Fred Armisen and Chris Parnell, and Scrub’s John C. McGinley. And fresh off an Emmy worthy performance in USA’s The Sinner, Pullman is wildly entertaining and exasperating as the extreme chauvinist announcer who deemed men more exciting, more competitive, and faster.
Certainly a match worth watching.
First-rate performances by Emma Stone, Steve Carell, and the star-studded cast
Parts of the movie drag on making it feel a bit longer than its 120 minute running time.