Battle of the Sexes sticks the landing […] taking the story of Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in their 1973 tennis match and getting into all the nooks and crannies of the politics of the day, making for an arresting narrative that is never undercut by that fact that its main plot “spoiled” by history.
The best kind of biopics are the ones that focus on a specific aspect or event in a notable figure’s life. The best of the best biopics take a well known accomplishment and dissect it, placing it into the context of its time and place while demonstrating with the story is still relevant in the time in which its being produced. Battle of the Sexes sticks the landing on both, taking the story of Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in their 1973 tennis match and getting into all the nooks and crannies of the politics of the day, making for an arresting narrative that is never undercut by that fact that its main plot “spoiled” by history.
The basic plot follows Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) as she forms the Virginia Slims Circuit with the “Original 9” after discovering that the US Lawn Tennis Association the prize money offered to female players is a mere fraction of that offered to the male players, despite equal ticket sales. As the circuit takes off and the tour gains some notoriety, former player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) persuades Margaret Court to play him in order to help pay off his gambling debts. After beating her easily, King feels pressured to play and beat him in order to push back on the narrative that female athletes simply couldn’t compete against men.
The film is firmly centred around King’s fight for equality in women’s sports and her conflict about accepting Rigg’s challenge is shown to be a reticence to play into his intentionally provocative “male chauvinist pig” routine. Riggs is a showboat and a clown, and the film clearly sets the impossible stakes for Billie Jean: refuse to play and concede that she cannot compete, or play and lose and prove it. With the Slims tour doing well and her own star rising, the pressure was on, and her success became entangled with the ongoing women’s liberation movement. Suddenly it was not a matter of whether or not King could beat Riggs, but if women deserved to be treated as fully capable members of society. The movie is excellent and generating the tension and anxiety that must have been in the air and building the moody gloom that hung over the affair as women’s stake in King’s success grew.
Emma is exquisite in the role of King, cycling through determination, fear and confusion as she trains for her match with Riggs while dealing with her own burgeoning queer sexuality. In a scene directly after King wins the match, she retreats to the locker rooms and bursts into tears. The camera holds on Emma’s face as the tears fall and relief and terror and panic sweep over it; by some miracle, the worst did not come to pass. It was such a reasonable, human reaction that I identified with immediately. The pure release of a weight being lifted off one’s shoulders is difficult to capture onscreen.
Carell’s Riggs is as obnoxious as needed, spouting misogynistic drivel more often than he draws breath. But the movie is clear that the real villain isn’t Riggs’ demonstrative chauvinism, but Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer, who is convinced of women’s inferiority and determined to reinforce his own worldview. Riggs is an ass who is all too happy to regurgitate alienating rhetoric about women to put himself in the limelight, but it is Kramer who has the power behind the scenes to turn his misogyny into institutional policy.
With the real life Billie Jean King working as a consultant on the film, it was inevitable that the story would favour her, but it still manages to feel fair and balanced in its depiction of all the players involved, while still giving Stone her moments to shine as she replicates King’s sheer badassery; ahead of her time, and a genuine feminist pioneer in her own right.