Battle of the Sexes and all the images you see in this review are owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Well THIS is certainly a pleasant surprise! I may not know all the details, but I’m certainly aware of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Robbie Riggs which has always stuck with me despite only knowing about it by watching the back half of a TV documentary around fifteen years ago. I’ve always liked tennis as a sport and the build up to the phenomenal match was ridiculous and felt like a flash in the pan moment in history which did end up having a big impact on everything simply for how much confident men were that she was gonna lose and then had that whole perception shattered on live television around the world. Is there any way that a film can do justice to this once in a lifetime event and remind us all of how important this was in the first place? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about the infamous match between world renowned tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and world renowned FORMER tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) which was played up in the media as THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES and the match that would once and for all prove that women have no business competing in MAN PLACES like tennis; something that wasn’t helped by Riggs’s absurdly derogatory and over the top chauvinistic stunts. Of course, there was a lot more to the story than the over the top theatrics leading up to it which includes the establishment of the Women’s Tennis Association, Billie Jean’s romantic relationship with another woman Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), and even Bobby Riggs’s financial woes that may have been the driving force for setting up this match in the first place. So much was on the line for Billie Jean to succeed, yet with so much working against her, it was quickly becoming a task that seemed impossible to overcome. Would she be able to find the strength to overcome the odds and prove herself once and for all? How will she be able to maintain a relationship with another woman in a time when that was much more frowned upon and life destroying than it is today? How can one person navigate all this nonsense being constantly thrown at them and STILL manage to keep from knocking all these jerkwads upside the head!?
Alongside Get Out, Wonder Woman, and to a certain extent IT, this feels like a movie that’s gonna be VERY important going forward and will hopefully have even a fraction of the impact that the famed match between what’s his face and Billie Jean King had back in 1973. Okay, that probably a bit hyperbolic, but there’s something incredibly raw and uncomfortable lurking under the surface of this seemingly light and kitschy film about a tennis match that gives this film a sense of meaning few films are able to achieve. I’m not sure if it’s one of the BEST films of the year as it drags through its two hour run time, but it’s certainly a film that’s gonna stick with me for just how well it captures a perspective that I honestly will never have the ability to experience for myself; and NOT just because I’m really bad at tennis!
Now this might just be my own fragile innocence being destroyed and is common knowledge to the rest of the world, but it was pretty hard to sit through almost every scene in this movie that had a man in it; especially with men who thought they were the good guys in this story. The amount of misogyny that is bleeding out of every frame in this movie is not just superbly well realized to make you constantly feel on edge, but it feels distressingly… mundane. No one in this movie is slapping women or groping them at a party, but aside from maybe one or two dudes, no one is lifting a finger or refusing to go along with the constant beratement, disrespecting, or downright mockery of every women they come across; assuaging their fragile male egos by making sure women are always one step below them. There are some who are less toxic than others like Billie Jean King’s husband who honestly has a rough situation to navigate, but even he ends up trying to insert himself into situation where he’s just not needed, and the movie plays this out like just another annoying fact of life that everyone just had to deal with like how people in period pieces had to live without cell phones and air conditioning. That’s not to say that it’s MINIMIZING the abuse that women had to navigate at the time (and still do now frankly), rather it’s an admission of just how pervasive these kinds of attitudes were that the baseline for male decency was still rather lacking. I especially liked the scene with Chris Parnell as a DJ who’s interviewing the women tennis players who formed the WTA which could have just been an exposition dump to get the plot moving (what the women are doing to keep the promotion going), but the dialogue is so well crafted to give that edge of discomfort as the guy SEEMS to be trying to give them a fair shake which very few people were doing at the time (being a GOOD ALLYTM), but the times being what they were he just couldn’t help but throw out a few condescending barbs. It’s just the way things were at the time which again isn’t an excuse; it’s a condemnation of the status quo the specter of it that exists to this day, though with some of the recent news it seems like we’re a lot closer to that time than any of us would like to admit.
That’s the BIG thing that really sticks out about this movie and is why I feel that it’s something that will give this movie a sense of purpose going forward, but aside from that we really do have a solid sports parable in the vein of the Rocky films that tempts you to stand up and cheer as our hero faces off against their opponent in the sporting event to end all sporting events! In this case though, it’s actually TRUE as this tennis match (TENNIS OF ALL SPORTS!) became a part of American history. The film can be a bit TOO broad when it comes to this section of the movie and I think it’s possibly sacrificing a bit of the authenticity in favor of portraying this as the myth it’s essentially become, but it’s still enjoyable. As much as I thought the training montage was a bit silly (it’s basically the one at the beginning of Rocky III but if we were rooting for Clubber Lang) and I’m a bit hesitant about assigning Billie Jean King’s loss against Margaret Court to her BEING DISTRACTED BY HER GUILT which feels like a straight up Hollywood screenwriting move, but overall it’s a rather enjoyable David vs Goliath story; only with David being a woman and Goliath being a cartoonish Men’s Right’s Activist caricature. The stakes for this match are palpable due to how well the film depicts the toxic atmosphere surrounding the sport and society in general at the time which makes it a prime example for adaptation since the way everything ended up playing out feels like an epic adventure had leapt from the pages of a novel into the real world and we got one of those storybook endings that we always hope for when the world seems to be at its bleakest. I don’t know much about Billie Jean King after this match, but she was the right person who was there at the right time and changed the course of history by sheer force of will and immense talent which this movie manages to present to us with the utmost sincerity.
If there’s one part of the movie I’m genuinely conflicted on, it’s the romance subplot between Billie Jean King and Marilyn Barnett which feels a bit out of place and overlong in a movie that had so much going for it already. Sure, LGBTQIA+ representation in movies is important and is important to this story (as much of Alan Cumming is played up for laughs, he does add quite a bit to the movie), but where the commentary on misogyny felt on point and consistently well executed, the secret relationship feels much less focused which takes away from its impact. Sometimes it’s played up for laughs, sometimes it’s a love triangle situation with Billie Jean King’s husband thrown into the mix, and it even goes through the ARE THEY BREAKING UP FOR GOOD cliché that seems to only be there so the film can refocus its efforts on the real meat of the story. To me, the tennis match and Billie Jean King trying to fight off against the patriarchal forces that were trying to keep her down was a lot more satisfying to watch, but I guess that’s kind of the point. This isn’t some righteous tryst as she stands proudly against societal norms to fight for what’s right; it had to stay in the shadows and they were constantly on edge to keep their secret from getting out. The guilt involved with Billie Jean King cheating on her husband also ate away from her and made it harder to fully commit to this new relationship in her life. I get all that and it feels accurate the same way the misogyny does, but I just didn’t find it nearly as interesting to watch as the scenes about tennis and they ended up dragging the movie down for me whenever it would pop up.
There are some other things that knock points off of this movie (mostly the scenes with Bobby Riggs which feel extraneous and much less engaging than the ones with Billie Jean King), but I’m hesitant to be any harsher against this movie than I already have been as I want to reiterate how important this movie’s strengths are compared to its relatively minor weaknesses. I don’t know if this will end up on my best of the year list considering how many great films we’ve gotten this year, but I absolutely recommend checking this out if you get the chance to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go dust off my copy of Hot Shots Tennis! Where’s MY training montage!?