‘Battle of the Sexes’ proves to be more than just a sports movie

Stone and Carell excel in character-driven film

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 10/31/17 12:05am

In last week’s review of “The Snowman,” I encouraged readers to skip that dreadfully dull film and instead watch “Battle of the Sexes.” As it happens, I saw the two films over a week ago, and the contrast could not have been greater. When I walked out of “The Snowman,” my head was reeling with confusion. When I walked out of “Battle of the Sexes,” I felt buoyed, eager to return home and research the real-life story that had inspired the film. This is one of the year’s best films and the more I think about it, the fonder I grow — which is significant considering I was already fond of it when I walked out of the Nugget Theater.  

In what was considered a watershed moment in women’s tennis, Billie Jean King won a major televised tennis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973. Prior to the actual match, it had already become highly politicized. In fact, King knew that her performance would likely have a lasting impact on the way women’s sports would be viewed in the years to come. Rest assured, the ongoing battle for equal pay and equal treatment would have been set back even further if she had lost. While “Battle of the Sexes” is about the importance of the titular match, Simon Beaufoy allows his screenplay to take its sweet time, carefully crafting characters and backstories. He doesn’t just chronicle the events leading up to the match but also the events leading up to the decision to even hold a match. Consequently, we appreciate exactly what is at stake on the pivotal day. 

King and Riggs are played by Emma Stone and Steve Carell, respectively. While one would expect both actors to turn in excellent performances, I admit that I was surprised by just how nuanced they were. If last year’s “La La Land” showed us Stone’s range and depth, then “Battle of the Sexes” highlights the wonderful little idiosyncrasies in her acting. One of the more substantial subplots chronicles King’s first relationship with another woman, played by Andrea Riseborough. Stone adeptly captures a mixture of excitement, fear and vulnerability in these beautifully handled scenes. I appreciate that the film actively acknowledged the homophobia that King feared would ruin her career, yet at the same time, the filmmakers never tried to make her sexuality some sort of overly-sensationalized plot point. In fact, there were times when the film would have benefited from further exploring this aspect of the story. King’s complex and unexpected relationship with her husband Larry, in particular, made for riveting drama. That being said, I understand that it wasn’t really supposed to be the primary focus of the film. 

Equally fascinating was Riggs’ story, which was surprising because the trailers depicted Carell playing little more than a chauvinist buffoon. Riggs is certainly that, and the film never denies or apologizes for the less savory aspects of his personality. Still, the filmmakers provide an intriguing context for that personality, contrasting Riggs’ public persona with his home life. In public, Riggs advocates for an incredibly regressive worldview: His version of the American dream idolizes the nuclear family and demands strictly enforced gender roles. However, we slowly discover that Riggs’ home life is really more like a fractured parody of this vision. His wife funds his flagrant lifestyle yet despises his addiction to gambling. Even his son seems largely disgusted by his pathetic father. Carell uses his comedic talent to great effect in these scenes. We realize that the humor is little more than an exterior, a coping mechanism for a man who must pretend he is happy.

“Battle of the Sexes” is ostensibly a sports film — but it also isn’t. That is either to the film’s benefit or to its detriment depending upon how you feel about sports in general and tennis specifically. I, for example, know next to nothing about tennis and was thereby relieved by how little time was spent on the court. While the game makes an occasional appearance, it’s clear that the filmmakers are far more interested in the personal lives of their characters. The sport is merely the conduit for compelling drama. As such, my only major complaint has to do with the directing and editing of the final match — the actual Battle of the Sexes. It’s easily the longest stretch of tennis that we see in the film and, for the uninitiated, it can be a little confusing. I spent a fair amount of time saying to myself, “I think she’s currently got the upper hand” or “I think he just scored a point,” but to say I had no real grasp on the action would be an understatement. 

It feels rather myopic to make a comparison to Patty Jenkins’ 2017 version of “Wonder Woman,” but it’s hard to deny that both of these films are high profile projects with big stars that unabashedly champion feminist values. One is based on a beloved female icon in popular culture and the other tells the story of a milestone in women’s sports. Sadly, we feminists cannot take to the streets and proudly proclaim that Hollywood has fully joined the cause yet. Just as the real-life Battle of the Sexes did not solve gender inequality in the treatment and pay of female professional athletes, these two films and other like them will not solve inequalities in Hollywood. Still, the successes should be celebrated. Progress might not always be linear — especially when it comes to the moviemaking industry — but if we forget to notice it, then we risk losing sight of the fact that there is hope for the future.