By Laurie Coker
The battle rages on – gender battles that is. While new and unique elements have come to the light in the battle of the sexes this century, the well-known, at least to my generation, tennis match between the arrogant, bizarre, self-professed chauvinist Bobby Riggs and one of the top female tennis player in the 1970s, Billy Jean King define the movement in many ways. Directed by Jonathan Dayton, and Valerie Faris and written by Simon Beaufoy, The Battle of the Sexes starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell, captures a time in our history where, in the heat of debates on feminism, the controversy played out on a tennis court. Perfect pacing, dynamic dramatizations, and ideal impersonations make this battle engaging and empowering.
No one alive in the 1970s can deny that CBS’s primetime airing of the tennis match between King (Stone) and Riggs (Carrell) brought a tremendous, diverse audience to sit in front of televisions around the globe. By the very virtue of his outlandish, ostentatious behavior Riggs was more a draw for his self-created media circus than for his tennis skills. Indeed he won championships in the U.S. and Wimbledon, but when he challenged King he was 55 and she was just 29. A chronic gambler, Riggs devised the plan more to win than for any political or social issue behind the game. He egged King into playing the game, after he defeated another top female player and he seemed convinced that he would win big – on the court and in his wallet, betting on himself. For King it means drawing attention to women’s salaries compared to their male counterparts.
It is sometimes risky for a director to cast well-known stars to play iconic characters, but Stone and Carrrell meld brilliantly into King and Riggs – their true personalities and looks hidden wonderfully behind hairstyles, glasses, and mannerisms. It helps to have reels and reels of real-life footage on which to model their performances. Comedian and actress Sarah Silverman ads some delightful spark and fire as the women’s team manager and King’s friend. They craftily manage the behaviorisms of the colorful characters they work to embody – Riggs, wild and manic and King more subdued but passionate – on the court and off. Add to this the flawlessly created 1970’s world and the movie makes for engaging social commentary relevant then and now.
By delving into the past, Battle of the Sexes crosses into the present and draws an interesting and insightful focus on the present. The ensemble cast of known and unknowns complete every aspect of this compelling story, and footage from the match with commentary by the late Howard Cosell – and some now not so subtle digs at women – work to add a sense of realism and suspense. Even though the outcome is well-documented, Dayton and Faris offer events and interactions at a volleying pace. Stone and Carrell are Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs come to vivid life. The Battle of the Sexes earns an A in the grade book.