MOVIE REVIEW: Battle of the Sexes

(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon for 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film via

(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon for 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film via


A parade of backhanded compliments and unchecked displays of misogyny permeated the culture surrounding the historical sporting moment reenacted by Battle of the Sexes.  Right when you think Battle of the Sexes might over-employ a manipulative or selective dramatic license to paint that picture, the film immodestly inserts archival footage to illustrate an accuracy for the unrestrained sentiment.  Before the climactic and titular exhibition tennis match, the film plays the archival ABC prime time open featuring the legendary Howard Cosell.  Introducing the underdog in the Houston Astrodome, the broadcaster reads:

“Here comes Billie Jean King — a very attractive young lady. If she ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders and took her glasses off, you’d have someone vying for a Hollywood screen test.”

LESSON #1: THE PREVALENCE OF SEXISM-- Cosell’s dialogue, spoken to a worldwide audience of over 90 million viewers on September 20, 1973, stands as one of the tamer, yet peakest examples of the small-minded criticism that was too often deemed acceptable without correction, forethought, or afterthought.  The feminist agenda of the women’s liberation movement pushed against these inappropriate norms.

Reflecting on the past, Battle of the Sexes, from the team behind Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, recounts a tremendously positive turning point in women’s sports.  Drawing parallels to the present, the film also stands tall as a pertinent message film where one can compare the amount of progress towards gender equality in 44 years.  Injecting earnest drama and profundity into the tried-and-true sports movie formula, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton have crafted a gratifying yarn packed with contagious enthusiasm.

The Billie Jean King we meet in 1973, played by newly-gilded Academy Award winner Emma Stone, is the top women’s professional tennis player in the world at age 29.  She’s a married woman to Larry (Austin Stowell and his Fred Jones blond coif) and a celebrated public figure.  Hidden from the public eye is Billie Jean’s yearning heart, as she finds herself passionately attracted to hairdresser and unbound angel Marilyn Bennett (Andrea Riseborough, arriving in the most sensuous cinematic haircut scene this side of Phenomenon and Her Alibi), setting into motion a taboo affair.

Within the sport, Billie Jean and her tight-knit fellow female tennis pros are embattled with the sport’s organizers and influential leaders, including former great-turned-commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, wearing the villain badge), in advocating for equal pay, treatment, and respect.  Stewarded by their maven and promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), King and her squad break ranks to form the WTA and gain Virginia Slims sponsorship for their own tour, complete with colorful new uniforms designed by fashion czar and unofficial soothsayer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming).

Their hoopla sends waves of upheaval and incites a nutty money-making idea from 55-year-old gambling addict and retired three-time Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell.  As a self-appointed flag-waving and wang-flaunting male chauvinist, Riggs brokers winner-take-all exhibition contests against the top women players to prove male dominance on the court and entertain as attention-getting and ego-serving spectacles.  

LESSON #2: THE RISKS FOR A TRENDSETTER-- After King rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) is handily defeated, the proposition comes to Billie Jean to silence critics and shut Bobby’s mouth.  If she backs down, the haters win.  If she plays and gets embarrassed, she’ll never live it down.  The only way to win is to win.  Compound that with the image-shattering truth of, what would have been considered then, an unacceptable romantic life and the hazards for a conscious icon become heavy.  

King herself is proud to promote this story and the natural charisma of Emma Stone’s portrayal is the emotional and forthright core of the film.  By no means a slouch, despite playing tremendous one, Steve Carell embodies the  perfect level of pathetic as the magnetic sideshow and sleazy foil to Stone’s virtue.  Between the two stars and the extravaganza around them, Battle for Sexes is a time capsule of productional value.  The frighteningly accurate costume, prop, hair, and makeup efforts are all exemplary.

Through every facet of tone, Battle of the Sexes seeks to subvert and correct stereotypes.  What is marketed as a hammy sports film is actually quite the dramedy, showing the reverberations of pressure, passion, and responsibility placed on King’s stalwart shoulders.  To watch the drops of sexism morph into the beads of sweat that come from hard work and accomplishment is uncannily inspiring.  The right humor and candor give way to the rightful and deserved celebration and triumph.  

LESSON #3: RESPECT WOMEN, PERIOD-- Someday, a time will come when the blazed trails of women like Billie Jean King will lead to true equality and esteem.  Until then, every measure of respect paid to women is a step toward an acceptance and understanding that should be commonplace.  Make a greater effort, period.  If you’re part of the problem, change your ways.  Teach not only our daughters better, but our sons as well.  The old Lauren Barnholdt axiom says “you have to give respect to get respect.”  Women have been giving of themselves for far too long.  It’s time to pay the respect back.