Starting this week, Hollywood officially calls an end to the summer movie season. Over the next few weekends, a number of films with a legitimate chance during award season will debut in movie theaters around the country. The first of these is Battle of the Sexes.
The film follows the lead-up to 1973s “Battle of the Sexes”. The televised tennis match pitted female champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) against former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The movie initially crafts parallel narratives following as King leads a group of female tennis players who split from the US Lawn Tennis Association after a salary disagreement. Working together with World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the women serve as the founding members of the Women’s Tennis Association.
While the women tour the country, Bobby Riggs is floundering. After recently retiring from tennis, he finds himself working an unfulfilling job, and his marriage is crumbling. Worse still, he’s a gambling addict.
Their stories begin to come together when Riggs challenges women’s champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to a match. That exhibition, which is now billed as the “Mother’s Day Massacre” saw the 55 year old Riggs beat the much younger Court handily.
Thus, an emboldened Riggs challenges the 29 year old King to play for an impressive $100,000 purse. However, it’s not the prize money which pulls King into the match. As a fierce champion of women’s rights and gender equality, she enters the match to defend women’s tennis. After all, Riggs repeatedly refers to himself as a “Male Chauvinist Pig”. A Riggs victory could set women’s tennis back decades.
The small film survives on the strength of its actors, and Emma Stone firmly carries Battle of the Sexes on her shoulders. Since the movie began the festival circuit in September, rumors started to fly that the 29 year old actress could secure her third Academy Award nomination for her performance. In fact, Stone looses herself in the role, successfully transforming herself into the iconic tennis player. Her portrayal is a well studied one, as she even adjusts how she moves and carries herself to truly resemble King in her athletic prime.
Stone also handles the more challenging aspects of the script with ease. She presents a relatable take on King. Billie Jean King is still a young woman, who actively struggles with her sexuality. She seems happily married to her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), when she meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The two women share an unmistakable chemistry. As their relationship develops, King begins to question who she is and what she truly wants in her personal life.
The script for Battle of the Sexes is written eloquently tight-lipped on LGBTQ rights in 1970s America. The issue is brought to life through King and Barnett, as well as the WTA’s wardrobe designers Ted Tinling (the great Alan Cumming) and Henry (Wallace Langham). In fact, the film ends on a hopeful moment between Tinling and King as she walks back onto the floor after her final victory. While those in the LGBTQ community might not have the freedom to express who they truly are at this point, hopefully that day is coming.
If the film struggles anywhere, it is in the tone of the story. Gender equality and LGBTQ rights stand firmly rooted at narrative’s core. While Billie Jean’s narrative is incredibly interesting and compelling, some of the story’s emotional weight seems hampered by the script’s comedic attempts. Much of this revolves around Riggs’ character. As such, it’s difficult to tell whether the problem is with Riggs, or Carell’s performance in the role.
Carell seems well cast in the part. Not only is he fine in the movie, but he also physically resembles Bobby Riggs. However, like all performers he brings an established star persona to each part. While Stone is able to transform into this role, Carell performance isn’t a transformation. Rather, Bobby Riggs closely resembles some Carell’s best known characters like: Michael Scott, Brick Tamland and Maxwell Smart. Furthermore, the audience seems meant to laugh at Riggs’ foolish displays. There are moments where the over-the-top Riggs distracts from more interesting, powerful beats in the story. While this is a strong film, the struggles with Riggs character hampers the emotional weight of the story.
Battle of the Sexes comes from directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who are best known to audiences from their work on Little Miss Sunshine. They also brought together a stellar supporting cast in Battle of the Sexes. Actor Bill Pullman is a standout (and an amazing antagonist) as USLTA head Jack Kramer. Actress Natalie Morales shines as fellow tennis player Rosie Casals. Also keep an eye out for Academy Award nominated actress Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife Priscilla.
While Battle of the Sexes does have its flaws, it is still a fun, enjoyable movie. This is a definite must see for fans of inspirational sports movies like Rudy, Miracle and Seabiscuit. Furthermore, fans of both Emma Stone and Steve Carell should also make time for this film, as both actors put forward stellar performances. Will Stone once again be a player come Oscar time?
Battle of the Sexes opens in theaters around the country starting September 29th.