Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

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Tells the story of the seminal tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

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Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton, 2017

Women’s tennis is going through a tough time in the early 70s. Enormous pay inequality causes a group of women players, led by World Number 1 Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), to create their own tournament. The fight for women’s liberation was a sensation in the press, one which Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), broke huckster and former Wimbledon champion, latched on to. He becomes convinced that a match between himself and Billie Jean will put him back on the map. However, between playing tennis, discovering her sexuality with the alluring Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), and fighting for women’s lib, Billie Jean has more than enough on her plate. Eventually circumstances converge on Billie Jean and she feels like she can no longer ignore Bobby’s offer. The two face off in a match that will go down in history.

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Battle of the Sexes is a beautifully put-together movie that explores two individuals’ private lives as well as their wider place in history with depth and sensitivity. Filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton have elected to focus on the humanity of their two leads, particularly Billie Jean King, although every character in the film is depicted not as a cardboard hero or villain but as a fully formed person. Their decision is supported by uniformly excellent performances, not only from the two leads but from the supporting cast as well. Bill Pullman and Jessica McNamee are suitably manipulative villains working to their own ends, while Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, and Alan Cumming provide memorable support to Billie Jean in her fight. Steve Carell is hit or miss for me, but his casting as Bobby Riggs is inspired; he plays to his strengths in humour and physicality, but reigns himself in, not chewing the scenery or overperforming. This film belongs to Emma Stone’s powerful performance as Billie Jean, though. Stone balances impersonation with emotion, managing to physically embody Billie Jean and portray her journey with dignity.

Battle of the Sexes is not just a talky lifetime special. It’s beautifully shot, using location and space to great effect. There’s a grainy look to the film that gives it a true 70s feel, and the production design, costuming and cinematography work together to put us in the action. The use of music is clever, avoiding too many 70s hits in favour of songs of substance. Real life doesn’t always work like a movie, and some changes had to be made in the spirit of storytelling, but the heart of the story infuses every frame of this film – you really get the sense that the filmmakers care about their subject. The film collapses events from a wide span of time down to a few months in order to more effectively and entertainingly convey its message, building towards a match with great emotional and political weight. Condensing all these intersecting battles and storylines means that some fights are left unwon; however, that’s ultimately the film’s message. Even when one battle is won, the fight for dignity and equality goes on; now it’s our turn to follow in Billie Jean’s footsteps.

Battle of the Sexes on IMDb

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