Battle of the Sexes (2017)

  • Time: 121 min
  • Genre: Biography | Comedy | Sport
  • Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
  • Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Andrea Riseborough


In the wake of the sexual revolution and the rise of the women’s movement, the 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-men’s-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was billed as the Battle of the Sexes and became one of the most watched televised sports events of all time, reaching 90 million viewers around the world. As the rivalry between King and Riggs kicked into high gear, off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles. The fiercely private King was not only championing for equality, but also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, as her friendship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) developed. And Riggs, one of the first self-made media-age celebrities, wrestled with his gambling demons, at the expense of his family and wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Together, Billie and Bobby served up a cultural spectacle that resonated far beyond the tennis court, sparking discussions in bedrooms and boardrooms that continue to reverberate today.

4 reviews

  • 2017’s Battle of the Sexes is my latest review. Based handily on a true story, “Sexes” depicts the events leading up to the famous 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Battle of the Sexes also illustrates the match itself. Wooden rackets, short shorts, an audience of 90 million worldwide, a Houston Astrodome venue, it’s all there.

    In retrospect, “Sexes” is a good film but it doesn’t quite achieve greatness. It lacks excitement simply because Billie Jean’s routing of Riggs was sort of lopsided. All you gotta do is look at the wiki page and know who won beforehand. I was pumped to see this thing based on its meaty trailer with Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” blaring in the background. In the end though, anti-climatic and blase are some of the words I would use to deduct points from my rating for Battle of the Sexes. I will recommend this flick but it only wins half the “battle”.

    The strong elements for “Sexes” are obviously the acting of the cast and the direction of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). Emma Stone and Steve Carell are excellent in the leads. They dive into their roles as King and Riggs with veritable aplomb. You also have sturdy supporting work in Sarah Silverman. She goes unrecognizable with the part of Gladys Heldman, the founder of World Tennis Magazine. As for the portrayal of Marilyn Barnett (Billie Jean’s hairdresser and secret lover), Andrea Riseborough is all aces (ha-ha) giving a warm and subtle performance. I can’t predict the future but I’m hoping that all four of these actors get nods from the Academy come awards time. It’s only September so yeah, that may hurt their chances.

    In regards to Dayton and Faris (mentioned earlier), well they shoot Battle of the Sexes in a flask, dream-like state. Their look is grainy, they use rack focusing, and “Sexes” almost achieves the feeling that you’re watching something that was actually made in the 70’s. The tennis scenes look authentic, the period detail is adequate, the awareness of time and place works, and there’s a sense that you’re always peering in on any trouper and their woman’s lib/male chauvinist situation.

    Overall, “Sexes” is not all about a tennis teeming. It’s really a character study and/or a backstory via the lives of Riggs and King in 73′. The outcome of their three sets featuring drop shots, volleys, and lobs, might have changed woman’s tennis for the better. But hey, where’s the fire here. A positive assessment for me but a muted result at best. Of note: I usually recommend movies that have historical gravity anyway. Rating: 3 stars.

    Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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  • This replay of the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King serves as an ode to the America Donald Trump is killing — and a prayer for its revival.
    The two leads’ intros are revealing. Billie Jean appears as a montage of action shots. Her vitality shows her as blur. Riggs paces alone in his high, empty office tower, an ex-champ now a supernumerary for his rich wife’s father. Riggs itches to do something, anything, to recover his lost glory, to reaffirm his superiority as a man.
    In his bragging, bluster, vanity, arrogance, misogyny, showmanship, moral emptiness and ultimate futility, Riggs is a Trump figure. To both, anyone afflicted with responsibility, modesty and humanity is a loser. Riggs hijacks a Gamblers Anonymous meeting to nourish their addiction, not to address it. His clowning barely conceals his lack of self-respect and moral core.
    Against Riggs’s transparent insecurity and empty macho strut, Billie Jean projects a confident, competent, spirited servant to the public good. She’s an icon of two revolutions in America, that Trump is in the process of reversing. There’s even a “Billie Jean for President” sign at the match, among the still-embarrassing reminders of Nixon.
    Her revolt against the male-dominated tennis profession is an assertion of women’s right to equality, in treatment and in salary.
    Jack Kramer embodies male superiority. The women’s purse should be one twelfth of the men’s even though the women’s games attract equal audiences. Kramer lives by that double standard, flattering women while suppressing them.
    Their egos clash when Billie Jean refuses to play the big match if he is Riggs’s commentator on TV. Kramer claims she won’t have the nerve to abandon the match if he performs. She responds in kind: He won’t have the nerve to see it cancelled because of his refusal to step down. She wins that one, then — spoiler alert — the match.
    She wins with precisely the qualities Kramer says women lack: physical strength, the ability to perform under pressure, and control over her emotions. Her post-game private weeping shows she has the emotions that ennoble a woman — and the discipline to control them. She also has the stamina and rigour Riggs’s game lacks.
    Of course that calumny is what women continue to face in business, politics, academia, wherever the fraternity is too frightened to give women even a taste of the privilege and power they have traditionally enjoyed. Remember Trump’s mock concern over Hillary’s stamina —then his collapse into a golf cart at his first summit meeting.
    In the second revolution, Billie Jean’s first lesbian affair emphasizes her iconic role in sexual identity politics. As her gay designer consoles her, soon America will let people like them love whom want to, how they want to. A postscript details her activism for LGBT rights and the close relationship she maintained with her ex-husband throughout her later gay relationship. His swagger dissolved, Riggs is bolstered by the return of his wife too.
    The designer’s optimism proved true — for a while, until Trump’s current betrayal of the women and LGBT that as candidate he pledged to support.
    As Riggs is portrayed here, he has one appealing quality Trump lacks. Riggs acknowledges his needs. He knows he needs the thrill of gambling, assurance that he’s not just a kept man, his sons’ respect and his wife’s — well, at least her presence. Trump is too childish to have even that self-awareness.
    How will this film play? I think most viewers will enjoy the drama, the humour, the emotional engagement.
    But there will remain that radical division between the conflicting views of what exactly made America “great.” Billie Jean’s side will say America was great for promoting equality, liberty, opportunities for all, the right of everyone to realize what they individually are. From the women’s ambitions, independence, presumption, sexual freedom and equality of rights, the Trump side will recoil in fear and disgust. This vision of the States Formerly Known as United is how that 1973 mini-drama reflects and addresses America today.

  • If tennis remains the only sport in which men and women receive equal prize money, that is mostly due to the efforts of Billie Jean King. Considered one of the greatest players of all time with 39 Grand Slam titles under her belt, she was also a vocal advocate for gender equality. Arguably her greatest moment was winning the much-publicised “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs, which not only changed the field of women’s tennis but also public perception at a time when women were fighting for respect in a male-dominated world.

    The famous battle has been depicted thrice onscreen – in the 2001 TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver, a 2013 documentary Battle of the Sexes, and now in the engrossing if sometimes problematic Battle of the Sexes with Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs. The film is naturally inclined towards the former though the filmmakers wisely do not diminish the latter, who may have willingly “put the show in chauvinism” but was very much a man making a desperate attempt to stay in the spotlight.

    Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) efficiently and breezily sets the table: King, the top women’s tennis player at the time, is ruffled to discover that the cash prize for male tennis players is eight times that of the women’s. Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), head of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), condescendingly explains that it’s the men that audiences want to see because they are faster, stronger and more exciting. “It’s simple biology,” he says. King disagrees, they pull in the same punters so they should be paid the same as the men. When Kramer refuses to equalise the pay, King decides to form a rival league, the Women’s Tennis Association, and convinces many top female tennis stars, including the sparky Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), to risk their careers (Kramer banned them from playing in any slams, which included Wimbledon) and signing $1 contracts.

    As King, the other players, and their publicist Gladys (a fantastic Sarah Silverman) secure sponsorship with Virginia Slims, sell tickets, promote the matches, and do whatever they can to further their cause, the married King finds herself in a more personal struggle: combating her attraction to free-spirited hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). There’s a lovely textural tangibility to their scenes together – the camera often enwombing them, heightening not only the intimacy but King’s inner conflict at recognising her true self. She knows her homosexuality could scupper her career and the WTA, but also that it would hurt her husband, trainer and manager Larry (Austin Stowell), who has never been anything less than kind and supportive to her.

    Meanwhile, Riggs is pushing himself back in the spotlight with his chatter about women belonging in the kitchen and bedroom and challenging King to a match to prove his point. When King refuses, he turns his attention to Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), the other top player of the day, and, when he resoundly beats her in straight sets, King can’t help but accept Riggs’ challenge, not necessarily to prove that women are better than men, but that women deserve as much respect.

    Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris create a winning and satisfying drama, though there are points of contention. For one, there was no need to slightly demonise the old-fashioned Court, who comes off as bitchy and slightly vindictive. For Court, the game with Riggs was just that – a game – and it was only in hindsight that she acknowledged its greater symbolism. Court’s curtsy as she accepted Riggs’ flowers at the start of the match is also glossed over; strange, since that innocuous curtsy on her part outraged women who felt that she was displaying subservience.

    Riggs, at least, is more than a one-dimensional sketch. An inveterate gambler and hustler, Riggs may have been a clown but he did have the talent to back up the braggadocio. A former World No.1, he was also a Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion. The filmmakers don’t villainise him because Riggs wasn’t one – he may not have had as much to lose as King but what he stood to sacrifice was just as significant to him, not only his resurrected celebrity but also his newly renewed bond with estranged son Larry (Lewis Pullman) and his marriage to the wealthy Priscilla (welcome back Elisabeth Shue!). One of the most affecting scenes in the entire film finds Riggs and Priscilla discussing the state of their marriage – the camera zooms in so close on Carell, who conveys the heartbreak beneath the constant show of foolishness with tremendous skill and depth of feeling. Nevertheless, the filmmakers seem somewhat intent on positing him as a fool – even the actual training he did for his match against Court is diluted down to an image of him prancing around in a sauna suit. Compare that with the training scenes afforded to King as she preps for the match against Riggs.

    That said, Battle of the Sexes is still a satisfying affair, the eponymous showdown exciting, the period well-recreated, and King’s achievement completely remarkable and resonant thanks to Stone’s convincing portrayal of a woman who was never interested in maintaining the status quo.

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  • Tennis and sex, but without the grunting.

    Rating: 9*

    Here’s a good test of someone’s age…. ask the question “Billie-Jean?”. Millennials will probably come back with “Huh?”; those in their 30’s or 40’s might come back with “Michael Jackson!”; those older than that will probably reply “King!”.

    “Battle of the Sexes” (which I just managed to catch before it left cinemas) tells the true-life story of US tennis star Billie-Jean King (Emma Stone, “La La Land“). The year is 1973 and Billie-Jean is riding high as the Number 1 female tennis player. She is a feminist; she is married (to hunk Larry – no not that one – King played by Austin Stowell (“Whiplash“, “Bridge of Spies“)); …. and she is also attracted to women, not something she has yet acted on. That all changes when her path crosses with LA-hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, “Birdman“, “Oblivion”).

    But this is a side story: the main event is a bet made by aging ex-star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher“); that – even at his age – as a man he could beat the leading female tennis player of the day.

    The film is gloriously retro, starting with the old-school 20th Century Fox production logo. And it contains breathtakingly sexist dialogue by writer Simon Beaufoy (“Everest“, “The Full Monty”). Surely men couldn’t have been so crass and outrageous in the 70’s? Sorry ladies, but the answer is yes, and the film is testament to how far women’s rights have come in 50 years.

    This is a tour de force in acting from both Emma Stone and Steve Carell, particularly the latter: a scene where Carell tries to re-engage with his estranged wife (Elisabeth Shue, “Leaving Las Vegas”) is both nuanced and heart-breaking. Stone’s performance is also praiseworthy, although it feels slightly less so as it is an impersonation of a (relatively) well-known figure: this is extremely well-studied though, right down to her strutting walk around the court which I had both forgotten and was immediately again reminded of.

    One of my favourite movie awards are the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) “cast” awards that celebrate ensemble performances, and here is a film that should have been nominated (it unfortunately wasn’t). Andrea Riseborough; Natalie Morales (as fellow tennis player Rosie Casals); comedian Sarah Silverman (“A Million Ways to Die in the West“), almost unrecognisable as the brash publicist Gladys Heldman; Bill Pullman as LTA head Jack Kramer; the great Alan Cumming (“The Good Wife”) as the team’s flamboyant, gay, costume designer; Lewis Pullman as Riggs’s son Larry; Jessica McNamee (magnetic eyes!) as King’s Australian tennis nemesis Margaret Court. All bounce off the leads, and each other, just beautifully.

    Cinematography by Linus Sandgren (“La La Land“) and editing by Pamela Martin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) unite to deliver one of the most sexually charged haircuts you are ever likely to see on the screen. For those put off by this aspect of the storyline, the “girl-on-girl action” is pretty tastefully done and not overly graphic: it’s mostly “first-base” stuff rather than “third-base”!

    Directed with panache by the co-directors of the 2006 smash “Little Miss Sunshine” – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – all in all it’s a delight, especially for older audiences who will get a blast of nostalgia from days when sports were still played at a slightly more leisurely pace… and definitely without the grunting.

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