Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was a champion of three important issues of the last century. Founding member of the WTA, Being a leading advocate of LGTBQ rights and taking a direct risk to her personal life and profession to battle male chauvinism head on. In Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ film The Battle of the Sexes These important pillars are too often interrupted or not complexly fleshed out to give equal time to the Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) clown prince of tennis storyline.
The Riggs angle could have been covered by showing two or three of his stunts along with his best two passages one involving winning a Rolls Royce and the other telling attendees at a gamblers anonymous meeting where their true failings lie. Instead the narrative often cuts away from an intimate or poignant moment in King’s life to Riggs playing showman in one instance dressed up as Little Bo Peep on the court rallying while shepherding.
The story does hit on a few critical points. How leading tennis players King, Rosie Casals and Ann Jones boycotted the Pacific Southwest Championship run by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) the true male chauvinist in the film when he announced that the that he would pay the men 12:1 in prize money as they were the true draws. The women then created their own tournament The Houston Women’s Invitational lead by Gladys Heldman (Sara Silverman). More details around this venture would have been compelling instead of flipping back to another Riggs antidote.
The actors all perform well with the material presented. Emma Stone slides comfortably into the Billie Jean King role. Her struggles with focus, creeping new sexual feelings, knowing the persona she has to present to the public for the survival of the fledgling WTA but still taking a strong stance against an icon of the sport Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). Steve Carrell is larger than life as Bobby Riggs. He is the outward chauvinist that knows he’s playing a character all the while knowing he’s bankrolled by a woman his estranged wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). Andrea Riseborough turns in a strong supporting role as tour hairdresser Marilyn Barnett carefree in a Haight & Asbury way and catalyst for King’s sexually awakening.
Battle of the Sexes is a film that covers three distinct elements. The story would have benefited from at least a 1/3 split of the topics instead of giving the least engaging aspect half of the screen time. There are some good elements here surrounding the birth of the Women’s Tennis Association, The drive of a competitive athlete and the publics draw to a spectacle but a more in depth look at Billie Jean King’s personal and professional risks would have served the piece better.
** ½ Out of 4.
Battle of the Sexes | Jonathan Dayton / Valerie Faris| UK/ US | 2017 | 121 minutes.
Tags: Tennis, WTA, USLTA, Virginia Slims, Boycott, Chauvinism, Gambling, Exhibition, Houston Astrodome, ABC Sports.