The story of the celebrated 1973 tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs gets its second go round, this time as a feature film—the first attempt was a 2001 ABC TV Movie—in the engaging and involving Battle of the Sexes. Because this is a theatrical film, parts of the story that would have had trouble getting past the censors in that earlier version have now been integrated into the story and it works in the film’s favor. The most notable of which is King’s coming to terms with her sexuality. As a result Battle of the Sexes is certainly worthy of attention.
Emma Stone, in the first feature starring the actress to be released following her La La Land Oscar win, proves to be an excellent choice in the role of women’s tennis champ, Billie Jean King. Though the physical resemblance between Stone and her real life counterpart isn’t all that close, the actress still manages to lose herself in the role in such a way that we forget that it’s Stone we’re watching and not the real Billie Jean King. Steve Carrell, on the other hand, IS a dead ringer for Bobby Riggs. Carrell is also so good at humanizing the character that he actually elicits sympathy for the man. That’s a feat that isn’t that easy to pull off when one stops to consider how polarizing Riggs was in life.
The film begins with its participants in much different stages in their lives. King is a reigning women’s tennis champ and, by all appearances, happily married and with a contented life both on and off the court. Riggs, on the other hand, is a former men’s tennis champ, somewhat forgotten and working in an office for his father in law.
Riggs’ compulsion to gamble leads him to the idea of challenging King in a tennis match that’s bound to garner publicity. Riggs sees it as an opportunity to get back into the limelight and maybe clean up financially in the process. King eventually came to realize that a match between herself and Riggs was a chance to prove that women are equal to men in a society that believes otherwise. To state that they both had a dog in the fight is an old adage that seems appropriate.
Battle of the Sexes devotes a good chunk of its early section to King’s sexual awakening, which, as depicted in the film, comes after a chance encounter with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). King is conflicted with the image she is expected to maintain and her own deep desires, leading to all sorts of emotional turmoil. There’s also her battle with tennis head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who’s basically portrayed as a man so slimy in his sexist views that he oozes from place to place.
The period detail is great and, as previously noted, the performances are spot on. If there’s a quibble to be made it would with the light tone of the film that feels a bit in conflict with the heady subjects being dealt with but that’s a small complaint for a film that’s got so much in its favor.
Emma Stone & Steve Carrell in Battle of the Sexes
Battle of the Sexes is playing in Charlotte.
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