It’s not just about tennis. Take it from someone who journeyed an hour into this tennis movie, waiting to see some tennis, only to realize that Battle of the Sexes is also about LGBTQ rights. It’s not all about the tennis. In hindsight, I can see how the title’s double meaning was a smart directorial decision. It would be hard to build a full length feature around one match, especially when the chauvinist build-up is so hard to watch. Packing the extra time with something as important as gender equality, but on a much more discrete stage, was well played. Strong characters are a necessity but that don’t mean Jack squat unless they’re wrapped up in a captivating story.
Before the Williams sisters were in every commercial, tennis, like many other sports, was a male-dominated field. The perception of men being better than women was strong, especially since men’s competitions in the 1970s awarded eight times the prize money. One tennis player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), made it her life’s mission to even this playing field. We meet Billie Jean just after winning the title for number one female player. Relatively modest but a fierce advocate for equality, Billie Jean can’t ignore that the next grand tennis tournament is offering the male players significantly more cash than the women; so she founds her own tournament. In partnership with the glamourous Gladys (Sarah Silverman), Billie Jean unites eight women to kick start a new league that promotes comparable winnings. The athletes sell their own tickets, stay in local motels, and spark a nation-wide tennis uprising. Along the way, Billie Jean meets Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a young hairdresser with a special something about her. While Billie Jean navigates her unfamiliar feelings for Marilyn, the USA’s loudest misogynist, gambler, and former tennis star, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), challenges any woman brave enough to face him to a $35,000 match, just to prove that men are better. The stakes rise and Bobby becomes completely insufferable, leading Billie Jean to take the challenge and face the 55-year-old fog horn in the Battle of the Sexes.
Our Crazy, Stupid Love co-stars are together again in this racket and sneaker drama about equal rights. Steve Carell dons fake teeth and real short shorts to play the biggest jackass since Aladdin’s Jafar. Battle of the Sexes tries so very hard to show Bobby’s human side, rolling scenes where he plays with his kid or reconciles differences with his wife – but he’s just too easy to hate. The slander that comes out of his gaping trap and the publicity stunts he pulls are pure horseradish. It was hard to sit through all of his casually dropped misogyny, slingshotting us back to the smoking rooms of the 1970s before Hilary poked the glass ceiling. It’s tough to imagine that anyone would be caught breathing air with Bobby Riggs, but Battle of the Sexes proves that he wasn’t just man’s best friend; he was a national celebrity as well.
Bobby’s opponent and the star of the show is Mrs. Billie Jean King (always announced with the ‘Mrs.’). Battle of the Sexes starts on the sidelines where Billie Jean stumbles through unearthing some deep lady feelings that she didn’t know she had. Being a very focused character, Emma Stone chose to show just the right amount of cracks behind Billie Jean’s ambition to prove that even superstars have human feelings; and no more so than when faced with an opponent like Bobby. Billie Jean’s perfect answer to every bigoted jab is to resolve it on the court. The pressure builds perfectly in Battle of the Sexes, moving away from off-the-court sexual tension and into focused match preparation quickly and efficiently. Billie Jean is a machine. A machine against a lollipop.
Battle of the Sexes will have you praying for Bobby’s ruin, along with anyone who thinks that calling a co-commentator “Little Rosie” and cradling her neck during the broadcast is totally appropriate. Some of the lines in Battle of the Sexes sent repulsive shivers up my spine, especially when it hit that this kind of behaviour was the norm. Gross. Thank you, mom, for taking a head start and waving a machete through that misogynistic brush. The man vs. woman tennis match is one thing to cheer for, but it would be a long time before Billie Jean’s sexuality could be openly discussed. She’s both a fierce competitor and a victim, and Battle of the Sexes finds a natural balance. It’s not the sports movie I anticipated, nor does it move as excitingly as you’d expect, but Battle of the Sexes has other issues to spotlight. It’s a 7/10.