Film Review: In “Battle of the Sexes,” Baby (Mostly) Comes a Long Way

Film poster: “Battle of the Sexes”

Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.

How quaint a time it was, back in 1973, when men could freely taunt women for being a member of the weaker sex, unfit to play with the big boys. To quote the Virginia Slims cigarette ads of that era, women “have come a long way  … baby” (elliptical pause is my own). Now they can even aspire to be president; winning, however, is another matter.

Have we really changed, as a society, since the time when a 55-year-old former male tennis star named Bobby Riggs saw fit to challenge a 29-year-old then-current female tennis star named Billie Jean King, in an exhibition match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes,” and was joined in his misogynistic insults by the loud chorus of the (male) establishment? Replay the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and decide for yourself. Yes, Hillary Clinton made history as the first-ever woman nominated by a major party, but all the way to election day, itself, she faced sexist insults and denigrations of her qualifications that showed that we still have far to go. That “baby” at the end of the Virginia Slims ads still persists, in other words …

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) plunge us head-on into the early 1970s, just as King wins the 1972 U.S. Open, capping a season that puts her at the top of the women’s rankings. That victory is marred by the revelation, just afterwards, that women’s earnings, already far lower than men’s, will be reduced even more in an upcoming match. A proud “women’s libber” (as feminists were then called). King responds by creating the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), convincing enough of her fellow top players to join that the new organization poses a real threat to the established order. The tour’s sponsor? You got it, baby: Virginia Slims (now that really is quaint, a cigarette company sponsoring sports).

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes” ©Fox Searchlight Pictures

All the attention made King a target, and after first refusing to play the loudmouthed Riggs, she felt compelled to do so after he challenged and beat her main rival, Margaret Court (who didn’t take the match seriously and was ill-prepared). With the world of tennis – and much of the nation and beyond – watching, King stepped into the media–circus spotlight … and roundly trounced Riggs. Who’s your baby now, bub? Beyond the ridiculous game (who wouldn’t expect a fit 29-year-old woman to beat a much older man?), King’s legacy lies in the WTA, and the fact that women tennis players now earn as much money (give or take) as their male counterparts.

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King ©Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s a solid film and very entertaining, with good performances throughout, but too often marred by expositional stretches filled with on-the-nose dialogue where characters tell each other (and us) exactly what they’re feeling and what those feelings mean. Flaws and all, though, it’s a movie very much for our current time, highlighting all the ways in which we still need to grow. Emma Stone (La La Land), as King, perfectly captures her strength and fears, especially as a woman, married at the time, discovering her lesbianism. With her mind set on changing women’s tennis for the better, the last thing she needs is even a whiff of personal scandal. Andrea Riseborough (Shadow Dancer), as the object of her interest, is equally engaging, more experienced with women, but caught off guard by the depth of her attraction.

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), as Riggs, is perfect. The man was more than just a sexist pig, though he embraced that role with gusto, and Carell, so often ruining a film in recent years with over-the-top histrionics (witness Freeheld), brings the right combination of hubris and humanity to the part. The rest of the cast includes Sarah Silverman (Take This Waltz), Bill Pullman (Bringing Up Bobby), Alan Cumming (Any Day Now), among others, and a talented group of lesser-knowns. Always watchable, the film highlights an important moment in women’s rights that reminds us, in our newly troubled era, of the right way forward.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning “Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed”; a regular film commentator for the “Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at “The Baltimore Sun”; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of “Film Editing: Theory and Practice.”

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