The Battle of the Sexes

I remember watching the tennis match between Billie Jean King, here played by Emma Stone, and Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, on September 20, 1973.  I’m not sure how I got into it since I’ve never been a big tennis fan.  Billie Jean King, however, was a household name at the time.  And, though I never realized it until I did my research for this review, Bobby Riggs was a former number one tennis player in the world and won Wimbledon several times.

1973 was a restless time in American history.  The Vietnam War was still going strong though not well, and there were massive protests.  Watergate was a full-blown scandal.  And the Women’s movement was gathering steam.

Billie Jean King, one of the top female tennis players in the world at that time was a committed feminist.  Outraged by the disparity between men’s and women’s prizes in major tennis tournaments, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association which for a time ran its own tournaments and events.  It really took off when Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand that marketed its products to women, sponsored their tour.

Bobby Riggs was an inveterate gambler, hustler and out-sized personality.  He was married to Priscilla Riggs, played by Elisabeth Shue, an heiress whose father gave Bobby a desk job in the company.  She also insisted that he quit gambling and hustling, making him go to Gambling Anonymous meetings.  But Riggs wasn’t suited to such a conventional life.  He would sneak out of the house and do such things as betting his rich friends that he could beat them at tennis while holding the leashes of two large dogs and other such handicaps.

He finally hit on the idea of challenging one of the top female tennis players in the world to a match.  The match would be promoted by him making all sorts of outrageous sexist comments.  King was his first choice but she refused to become involved so he turned to Margaret Court, played by Jessica McNamee, who agreed.  Riggs beat Court handily and was unrelenting in his trash talk.  So much so that King agreed to take him on.

The Battle of the Sexes drags a bit in the beginning when directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are establishing things but takes off once the major conflicts are on stage.  The main strength is in the performances.  Steve Carell captures the bombast and larger than life persona of Bobby Riggs so well that it is hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But he also portrays the vulnerability behind the façade.

Emma Stone is brilliant as Billie Jean King.  She’s a driven woman both in terms of winning tennis matches and advancing the cause of feminism.  But when she meets Marilyn Barnett, a hair stylist, played by Andrea Riseborough, she becomes confused and distracted by her attraction to another woman.  She keeps saying it’s over, but a few moments later, they are in bed together again.

It’s only when confronted with the match with Riggs that she sets aside her doubts and begins training in earnest.  That’s the difference.  According to the film, Riggs viewed the whole thing as publicity stunt, a hustle that would net him a fortune.  He didn’t believe most of the chauvinistic swill coming out of his mouth.  King took it more seriously; she knew she was fighting for the recognition that women were equal.  So she trained just as hard for this match as she did for any other.

And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I tell you she won.

The Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining film.

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