STARRING: EMMA STONE; STEVE CARELL; BILL PULLMAN; ANDREA RISEBOROUGH
DIRECTED BY: JONATHAN DAYTON; VALERIE FARIS
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
Recently, tennis legend John McEnroe made a comment on NPR radio about tennis great Serena Williams, stating “if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.” He made this comment nearly 44 years after Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in their historic tennis match, but maybe he needs a reminder of the hurdles women in tennis have made. We’ve come a long way in the fight for gender equality. Humanity has made a few cracks in the glass ceiling along the way, but after the message sent by men and women alike during the 2016 presidential election, Battle of the Sexes is a film as relevant today as the match was in 1973. With a pair of stellar performances and strong direction from Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes is an absolute crowd pleasing success.
A majority for the reasons why I loved Battle of the Sexes is the performance from Oscar-winner Emma Stone as King. The focus of writer Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay is largely on the women’s tennis pioneer, and rightfully so. Her journey, mixed with Stone’s work, is one of courage and determination that I was in awe of. With men earning a $12,000 purse and women earning a measly $1,500, we begin with King’s difficult decision to separate from Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, starting her own league of women’s tournaments. This was a decision of great risk, one of the scariest choices of her career, but a choice that sent a reverberating signal for women all over the world.
The noise King made with the move caught the attention of gambling addict and self-proclaimed chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). His loud personality and craving for the spotlight lead to his idea of facing the #1 ranked women’s tennis player, who at first was Margaret Court, but after he defeated the Australian handedly, King took the baton to stick it to the loud mouth and prove that women deserved to be respected in the sports world.
It would be easy to dismiss Battle of the Sexes as another cliched award season affair, but directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do an impeccable job of pushing through the standard tropes. The authentic 1970’s look, matched with great costumes and makeup, only adds to the perfect casting, and layered story. The heart lies with Billie Jean King’s struggle to balance her failing marriage, the stress of beating Riggs, and her blossoming relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Risborough). Stone in both romantic and tennis playing scenes is superb. I can’t praise the La La Land star enough. Her rise is a true example of hard work. Starting as a nervous co-star in Superbad, to the muse in Woody Allen films, her arrival in Birdman, a magical display of versatility in the Damien Chazelle musical, and now delivering powerful, raw emotional energy as King. This performance is a balance of King’s fight for women everywhere and the painful torture of hiding her sexuality. Stone’s talent is no fluke, she’s a bright shinning star, worthy of portraying King.
Although I mostly praise Stone, there is a healthy amount of focus on both competitors lives. Carell’s Riggs is not entirely made as the villain. His performance brings a welcome levity, although I wish Dayton and Faris’ message focused more solely on the continuous problems of sexism then and now. Still, the story has the history do the talking for them. Riggs is viewed more as a pathetic person, a man fighting to keep his marriage with wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) alive, while grasping for relevancy in a world that men have always been put first. The sad reality is in the archived footage. From scenes where Howard Cosell’s play-by-play sounds like an effort to keep women in their place or the unaware male superiority that oozes from every privileged male.
It all amounts to a grand spectacle of a film. I always say, “a great sports film can keep you engaged even when you know the outcome.” That is what Battle of the Sexes does. The final match between King and Riggs is a nail-bitter, with the audience holding their breathe a little as the ball bounces back and fourth over the net. I knew Billie Jean King won the match, but I was enthralled, because a person of her caliber deserved a strong film like this. She will always be an american hero. Game. Set. Match.
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady