He was 55. She was 29. He said he was putting the show back into chauvinism. She said that dinosaurs can’t play tennis. It was the battle of the sexes, and even though the term is often used to help promote exhibition tennis matches between men and women, its most famous use refers to the nationally televised match of 1973 when ABC TV presented Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome.
For the majority of the audience who will see Battle of the Sexes at a theatre, this is recent history. In fact, it feels as though the whole affair wasn’t really all that long ago. Watched by 90 million people around the world, the match was viewed as a milestone for women’s tennis. For a younger generation who knows little if nothing of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and may not know how it ends, let’s be clear before any finger-pointing is done and accusations of plot-spoilers are made. If Riggs had won, there wouldn’t be a film; that’s why the match is considered a milestone for women’s tennis.
There’s a lot to tell before Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) eventually faced off on that Thursday afternoon in ‘73. In truth, knowing the end result spoils nothing. As presented, the game remains a thriller. Seeing it on TV at the time with all the media hype was exciting enough, but seeing it in the context of history and becoming aware of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans leading up to Houston is completely different. There’s something so wonderfully satisfying about that match point and watching men eat crow. You’ll be grinning from ear to ear.
As the 55 year-old champion tennis player, Steve Carell, in odd-looking wig and black-rimmed glasses, makes a remarkably accurate looking Bobby Riggs. Look at the black & white shots of scenes re-enacted in the film that appear during the end credits and you might do a double-take, wondering at first if you’re looking at either the actor or the real thing.
Riggs had a gambling issue. For the sake of his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and to keep his fragile marriage together, he attended Gamblers Anonymous. But he was continually defiant, questioning whether his problem was really a problem at all. At a meeting when he’s called upon to speak, he stands and tells everyone in the room, “You’re not here because you’re gamblers. You’re here because you’re bad gamblers.” It makes perfect sense to Bobby.
As good as Carell’s portrayal of Bobby Riggs is, the film’s focus leans more towards Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King. Again, with wig and glasses (in Stone’s case, wire-rimmed ones) the performer could never be mistaken for playing anyone else – the resemblance is plainly there – and she’s outstanding. Since leaving the Phoenix valley and her Valley Youth Theatre days for Los Angeles, the progression of Stone’s talent has repeatedly emerged with each new film, turning a corner with a weighty, dramatic heft in a supporting role for 2014’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and an acclaimed leading role while sharing headlines with Ryan Gosling in La La Land.
But with Battle of the Sexes, even with Carell’s equal billing, this is really Stone’s film. The conflicts her character is forced to confront within as she struggles with the conflicts of her sexuality is as demanding as the battles she engages on the court. Only an actor whose performance abilities have developed to this level of maturity could play that ambivalence as effectively as Stone. There’s a certain irony that an athlete who in ‘73 was the highest paid female in her sport is played by the highest paid actress in the world. And both in their late twenties. When asked if she’s a feminist, King replies, “I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman.”
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and filmed not in the crisp, blemish-free visuals of digital but on 35mm film, Battle of the Sexes actually looks like a seventies movie, with a great seventies soundtrack used in the background to further create an atmosphere of authenticity for the period. Hearing Elton John’s Rocket Man gives things a surprising perspective as you think back to where you were when the song was released. When Riggs is watching TV, it’s the Mary Tyler Moore Show he sees on screen, and when he flicks the channel, there’s Kojack. There are also real-life TV reality clips of the time when celebrities of the day are glimpsed, giving their opinions as to who will win the match. Actor Lloyd Bridges and tennis player Chris Evert lean towards Bobby Riggs, while Ricardo Montalban, he of the corinthian leather, takes it a step further by talking of the strong male muscle and its advantage, ensuring an automatic win for Riggs.
The famed sports journalist and broadcaster Howard Cosell is viewed in several archival clips along with some clever CGI manipulation, and it’s his commentary we hear throughout the match. While some of what he said sounded sexist (and heavily favoring the performance of Riggs) you could argue that the words of the mostly liberal minded announcer was merely a reflection of how men often spoke at the time, little realizing how they sounded. “She walks more like a male than a female,” he states, as if a more muscular strut was the sole domain of a man. Then he remarks on her attractiveness. “If she grew her hair and took off her glasses, she’d be ready for a Hollywood screen test.” You can’t help wandering with amusement how the Williams sisters would react if such comments were expressed by a broadcaster today.
But there’s no doubting the deliberate, intentional sexism of others. Bill Pullman is so authentic as the Executive Director of the Association of Tennis Professionals, Jack Kramer, that when, as a way of justifying paying women athletes eight times less than that of a male, he states that men are simply more exciting to watch than women, you almost believe it’s Pullman speaking and not his character.
Clearly, in the real world, at the time, the win and who won it was momentous – the symbolism was just as important, if not more important than the huge cash payout – but in terms of film and the telling of a story, wandering about the outcome and not wanting to know things in advance is irrelevant. It’s how the match originated and why that really counts; it’s the reaction from the press, the blatant chauvinism of the men within the sport and their sexist attitudes, the private lives of the two players and how it affected their decisions, and finally, the game itself and how the win was achieved. As King states after she turns down the initial offer, “It’s not a match, it’s a show.” But it became so much more. Battle of the Sexes is a genuine crowd-pleaser.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 121 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)