By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
During her career as a tennis player, Billie Jean King had to fight hard and play well to win respect in a male-dominated sport run by men who often saw women’s tennis as novel entertainment. King’s battles against male chauvinism would only be one of the battles she would face during her tennis career and afterward in her personal life. Battle of the Sexes, the new film by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) details the events in Billie Jean King’s career and life during the sixties and seventies which led to what is considered to be a major coup for women athletes and helped earn them some well-deserved respect.
Emma Stone stars as Billie Jean King, a professional tennis champion fighting for equal pay for women tennis players. When her lobbying for equality falls on deaf ears, King and several of her colleagues quit the league and set up their own tennis tour. This would not be enough to persuade the powers-that-be that women tennis players deserve the same respect and pay as their male counterparts. When former tennis pro and well-known hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), in a bid for more fame, attention and money, challenges King to a tennis match, she sees it as an opportunity to earn her cause more support.
Written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), Dayton and Faris’s film goes over as a triumphant, feel-good movie, but one that doesn’t overplay its hand. Sure, audiences have seen triumphant sports movies before this one, but Beaufoy’s story and character development works well, and the solid direction by Dayton and Faris keeps all of the material realistically grounded while maintaining enough spark of cinema magic to keep audiences cheering. The filmmakers do exceptional work in telling Billie Jean King’s story, even addressing her personal crises while attempting to maintain a successful career, salvage a troubled marriage, and facing the reality of her sexual orientation. The film also does well by properly developing the character of Bobby Riggs, presenting him as a real person with genuine struggles and problems, but without being too much of a downer, as Bobby would probably prefer it that way. Bobby Riggs was definitely a colorful, clownish character with a charming personality and a talent for playing the role of the heel when necessary, and Steve Carell gives an outstanding performance as him.
Carell has the perfect gift of gab, along with the right comic timing and energy for the role. Emma Stone exudes strength and determination as the feminist Billie Jean King while also revealing the vulnerabilities and anxiety associated with someone discovering a new facet to one’s psyche. The film also stars Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, King’s friend and supporter who helps her and eight other women tennis players begin the Virginia Slims Tour in response to the league’s failure to offer them equal pay. Silverman offers a wonderfully brash performance as an outspoken and straightforward businesswoman who deserves much respect for her contributions to tennis. Actress Andrea Riseborough also performs well as Marilyn Barnett, King’s hairdresser and eventual lover. The movie also has great acting and appearances by Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, and Natalie Morales.
I wouldn’t be too surprised if both Emma Stone and Steve Carell receive acting nominations for their work here. Even Andrea Riseborough has a good chance as well. The film, on the other hand, is a bit of a long shot, as plenty of triumphant sports movies have already preceded this one. Nevertheless, Battle of the Sexes is a great movie with fantastic performances and very worthy of audience attention. Those familiar with this true story will absolutely enjoy the trip down memory lane and those who were either not around when this happened or were too young (me) to appreciate this moment in sports will enjoy this historic triumph for women athletes and applaud the filmmakers and actors who recreated it.