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Battle of the Sexes is its own Winner

The 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” was a major moment in the history of womens’ sports. A highly publicized tennis match pitting veteran Bobby Riggs against talented up-and-comer Billie Jean King, it’s a story that’s long been waiting to be made into a movie. It’s Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris finally bringing it to the big screen and, through great casting and commitment, make it one of the best sports movies I’ve seen in years.
The film tracks the lead-up to the titular match, starting when King (Emma Stone) leads a troupe of female tennis players in quitting a tournament and starting their own tour in protest of payment discrimination. Meanwhile Riggs (Steve Carrell), retired from the sport, is a gambling addict in a troubled marriage. Eventually, he proposes the idea to challenge King, play up a false chauvinism, and make it a show. As this is happening, both players struggle with their personal lives, particularly King in trying to hide her burgeoning homosexuality.
This movie isn’t so much about tennis as the politics surrounding tennis in the early 70’s. It’s underlying themes are all about discrimination and King fighting for equal opportunities. Though her opponent is Riggs, her real enemy is Tennis Association director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who more closely believes the misogyny Riggs is spouting. And it’s this drama and underdog story that’s most interesting, and the reason why King’s spotlighted here more than Riggs. Set against a convincing 70s environment, it’s very easy to sympathize with these women tennis players and the people and hurdles they have to face. But the story doesn’t just play on your empathy, it’s a really engaging one to follow too. Even though the result of the Battle of the Sexes is well-known, many of us don’t know what went into it. For example, Riggs’ increased confidence being the result of beating another female tennis player, putting all the more stress on King. Having two lead characters we can emphatically understand certainly helps.
And it especially helps if those characters are played by actors giving their highest calibre performances. Coming off of her Best Actress win for La La Land, this is another stupendous showcase Emma Stone should certainly be nominated for. There’s a natural finesse with which she plays the part, relating with seeming ease the encumbrances of this figure. You feel every twinge of anxiety and pressure bearing down on her, from both her public life, and her personal life if it became public. The forbidden love story between her and her hairstylist Marilyn is quite well done, owing mostly to the great chemistry between Stone and Andrea Riseborough. They make for a very sweet couple as they try to keep their relationship secret. Steve Carrell also delivers terrifically. It’s hard to make a character who makes openly offensive statements sympathetic, even if it is just for show. But Carrell plays Riggs as a pathetic middle-aged gambling addict who wants to do better by his wife, played with subtlety by Elizabeth Shue, but is too entrenched in his vices and naturally irresponsible to do so. Though good at tennis, he’s seen by many to be a joke due to his sense of humour and showmanship. He’s an underdog too, if not as unjustly so as King. You can’t help but pity him at least a little.
This movie has one hell of a supporting cast, all of whom are good. I’ve mentioned Riseborough and Shue, Pullman of course has proven himself great at playing scumbags; but the film also features Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, the womens’ team manager, Austin Stowell as Billie Jean’s husband Larry King (not that one), Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales, Fred Armisen, and even Chris Parnell makes a cameo appearance.
The technicals of Battle of the Sexes are all solid, it’s got a fitting tone, good pacing, and the writing is great. Dayton and Farris also shoot the tennis very well, making what’s usually just a ball bouncing back and forth something tense and interesting. In fairness, it’s the build-up that creates this effect too, the stakes being very high on King’s end to win. The promotional campaign for the match in-film does a great job showing the attitudes the media had towards such an event, incorporating real celebrities’ takes on who would win and Riggs’ goofy antics. However this emphasis on it as pure entertainment and King’s commitment to taking it more seriously is an important contrast and statement by the filmmakers.
Battle of the Sexes is a great character piece, it’s a great sports movie, and it’s a great, if sometimes inaccurate, biopic. The life of Billie Jean King and her crusade for equal opportunity in the world of sports is an enthralling one, and the way it factored into this Battle of the Sexes is well worth exploring. For both her and Riggs, it was arguably the most significant point in their careers, certainly the most famous.Dayton, Farris, Carrell, and especially Stone resurrect it impeccably here. It’s an event that deserves such a well-made film with stellar performances and an important message relevant today as it was in 1973. 

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