Battle of the Sexes brings back the 70s in style

In 1973, the world tuned in to a TV spectacle – a tennis match. But not any old tennis match, this was one for the ages, the match that would prove once and for all that men were better than women that was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” There were actually two of these matches in 1973, although the one that is the focus of the new movie Battle of the Sexes was the one that was a worldwide TV event (although the first one is also depicted in the movie).

The whole event came about when tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) won a match and was awarded $100,000. King, however, noticed the pay disparity between the male tennis players and the female players, and even though she had just become a champ, a subsequent match she was to play in was awarding the women players only a fraction of what the male players were playing for because … men were better and more exciting to watch. King and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) decided they would form their own women’s tennis association – even though they had nothing to even start with – at the risk of being tossed out of the US Tennis Association with their competing Women’s Tennis Association.

King and her teammates would travel the country, playing each other, and with the hard work of Gladys managed to get a year of sponsorship from Virginia Slims cigarettes. And the hard work paid off as the tournaments began drawing huge crowds. Watching from the sidelines was retired tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), who was a bit incensed that these women weren’t happy with what they were being paid and decided he could prove once and for all that the male was the superior sex. Riggs was also a gambler, unable to control his urges and would take a bet on anything, much to the chagrin of his wife who eventually threw him out of their house while he was consumed with his desire to challenge King, who finally agreed to play him after he won the first battle against Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who had recently defeated King and was then the number one women’s tennis player (and Court has been in the news recently for her anti-LGBT stance in Australia as the debate over marriage equality heats up there – and the film does not shy away from portraying Court’s feelings even back then). The match is set, it becomes a TV event, but who would come away the victor?

While the match is the film’s focus, it also delves into the personal lives of the two protagonists, showing Riggs’s penchant to bet on anything and the toll it takes on his wife (played by Elizabeth Shue), and goes even deeper into King’s personal life. King was married at the time to Larry King (not the TV personality and played by Austin Stowell) who supported his wife unconditionally. But as the new league was forming, she struck up a friendship with hair dresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) which brought out feelings in King that she had been denying, but a romance developed in spite of herself, forcing her to balance her public life with her personal life, at one point taking a toll on her game.

Emma Stone plays King to perfection, expertly balancing that public and private persona, a performance that is sure to garner her an Oscar nomination. We feel King’s frustrations as she’s made to feel less than her male counterparts, especially as she goes head-to-head with USTA head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and we also feel the personal turmoil she’s experiencing as her feelings for Marilyn grow and she has to hide everything from her teammates (Margaret in particular) and her husband. It’s a perfectly balanced and nuanced performance, one of Stone’s best to date. Carrell is also excellent, quite possibly garnering some awards attention as well, showing us both sides of Riggs, the flashy showman and the husband who genuinely loves his family. Riggs knows his gambling is a problem and we feel his pain as his wife throws him out. Carrell does a terrific job of showing us Riggs’s pain while also being able to become the showman at the drop of a hat. It’s certainly the flashier role, and while in real life Riggs was portrayed as the classic male chauvinist pig, here we see that it was mostly all an act to get himself back in the spotlight. (And in the end, Riggs and King went on to become the best of friends, King speaking with Riggs the night before he died.)

The rest of the film’s performances are also excellent with Sarah Silverman showing us a different side to her usual comic persona, Pullman putting an even keel on what is basically the film’s villain, Alan Cumming’s fashion designer who knows exactly what’s going on with Billie Jean and Marilyn, becoming her protector at one point, and Riseborough’s Marilyn, a person who is open with her feelings, never seeming to push Billie Jean into anything, accepting the balance between her husband, her career and her feelings for Marilyn. By the end you are really rooting for Billie Jean and Marilyn (but in real life, when the two split Marilyn basically outed Billie Jean when she filed a palimony suit against her, a fact that is totally ignored in the film’s closing moments).

The film’s production design is exquisitely detailed, bringing out all the best – and worst – of 70s style, fashion, and hair. The film’s directors – Jonathan Drayton and Valerie Faris – do a great job of balancing the three parts of the story (King’s life, Rigg’s life, and the match), and Simon Beaufoy’s script is beautifully written, giving the actors a lot of good stuff to work with. And the tennis matches are also filmed with great care. Between using real tennis players for the wide shots and cutting in with the actors, it’s all handled so well that you believe Stone and Carrell are actually playing each other.

Battle of the Sexes is a terrific film that spotlights a moment in time many in today’s generation don’t know about. But with the crux of the story being the inequality women feel in their workplace – whether it’s a tennis court or an office – it proves that even as time moves forward, some things never change. Perhaps we can all learn a little something about ourselves while being entertained by a truly great movie.

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Chuck Duncan
Chuck Duncan has been the film critic for Baltimore OUTloud and its various incarnations for 20 years. He was previously a film and TV critic for and now owns the pop culture website where he reviews films, TV shows and theatre. Chuck is the head judge for the annual 29 Days Later Film Project, and works for Anne Arundel County's PEG Studio