Editor’s Notes: Battle of the Sexes is currently out in limited theatrical release.
In 1973, 90-million Americans huddled around their cathode ray tubes to watch the “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. At 29, King was considered the best women’s tennis player in the world (Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s dual ascendancy was just years away). At 55, Riggs was long past his prime, but as a showman and hustler, he was unsurpassed. Seeing a lucrative opportunity in challenging King to a one-off, winner-take-all, televised exhibition match, Riggs’ public performance as a “male chauvinist pig” (putting the “show back into chauvinism”) made it difficult, if not impossible, for King to reject Riggs offer without compromising her public persona as a women’s rights advocate and a feminist icon. Riggs handily beating King’s chief rival, Margaret Court, several months earlier raised the personal and professional stakes associated with the match.
Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris wring tension and suspense from the same-day build-up to the match, the match itself . . .
No spoilers as to who won the exhibition match (Google and Wikipedia are your friends), but it doesn’t matter if you already know who won. While co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine) wring tension and suspense from the same-day build-up to the match, the match itself – captured by grainy, fuzzy TV cameras with the occasional, ground-level insert – and the immediate aftermath (symbolic and figurative, more than real or long-lasting), it’s in the months-long lead-up to the match, following Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, never better) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) where Battle of the Sexes steps up its game to offer a sympathetic, insightful, poignant, behind-the-scenes look at the private lives of the public personas who stepped onto the tennis court of the Houston Astrodome on September 20th, 1973, as Americans on both sides of the political divide watched in rapt attention.
When we meet King months earlier, she’s engaged in a different kind of battle, a financial, political, and socio-cultural one that will determine not just her future in tennis, but practically every woman who follows in her footsteps. Unhappy with a contract that will pay women on the tennis pro circuit roughly an eighth of what men’s tennis players will receive, King and her manager-partner, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), orchestrate a mass defection of women’s tennis players from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association’s (USLTA) ranks, and create the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) not just as a competitor, but as a replacement. With more bravado than money, King and Heldman work tirelessly to elevate women’s tennis to the same financial level as the men’s, acquiring a major sponsor in a cigarette company, and almost as importantly, luring Court (Jessica McNamee) to join the tour.
Riggs’ sexist buffoonery reveals a deeply flawed man, but far from the caricature he presented to the general public as he played pitchman for the “Battle of the Sexes.”
A seemingly chance meeting with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), however, creates another kind of conflict for King, a personal one involving sexual identity and the potential consequences that identity would have not just personally or professionally, but on the cause of women’s equality (specifically the workplace). While she’s married to Jack (Austin Stowell), Billie can’t ignore her growing attachment or feelings for the carefree Marilyn. Dayton and Faris handle their burgeoning relationship, including a sex scene, free of exploitation or voyeurism, instead focusing on their growing emotional intimacy, an intimacy Jack – the odd man out who’s treated with sensitivity and empathy – watches from a distance, acknowledging their relationship initially as “just a phase,” before painfully accepting that Billie’s ultimate happiness means an end to their marriage.
Riggs doesn’t get anywhere the same treatment, let alone the same amount of screentime, as King, in large part because there’s far less of a story to tell with Riggs without going into unnecessary repetition in the interests of “balance.” Dayton and Faris, however, dig deep enough into Riggs and his backstory, the incessant gambling that almost derails his pampered life as the husband of an heiress, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), his boredom with said pampered life, a penchant for self-indulgent clowning that betrays an insecure, anxious man afraid of his own irrelevancy in 1970s America. In an early scene, Riggs willfully hijacks a Gambling Anonymous meeting. He’s there at the behest of his perpetually concerned wife, but the attention-seeking showman in him can’t help but turn the meeting into a pro-gambling screed (they’re in GA not because they’re gamblers, but because they’re bad gamblers). Riggs’ sexist buffoonery reveals a deeply flawed man, but far from the caricature he presented to the general public as he played pitchman for the “Battle of the Sexes.”
Contrary to Dayton and Faris hyperbolic, cliché-heavy ending, the world didn’t change after Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs shook hands the end of their exhibition match, one triumphant, the other humbled, one ecstatic, the other saddened, but if the match didn’t result in little more than 90 million TV viewers discussing the result with friends, families, and acquaintances, it more than succeeded. Like King’s attempts to wrest control of women’s tennis from the regressive, reactionary men who controlled the financial structure, including prize money, change toward equality, both women’s and LBGTQ, was and continues to be gradual, incremental, but rarely temporary.
Battle of the Sexes steps up its game to offer a sympathetic, insightful, poignant, behind-the-scenes look at the private lives of the public personas who stepped onto the tennis court of the Houston Astrodome on September 20th, 1973, as Americans on both sides of the political divide watched in rapt attention.