Battle of the Sexes Trailer

It’s difficult now to remember a time when people didn’t map political values onto nearly every cultural competition. In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, everything from the Super Bowl to the Academy Awards inspired memes rehashing such flashpoints as Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote and not visiting Wisconsin. In an era when politics have become pop culture, it seems inevitable that people choose to project their anxieties onto whatever might grant them a moral victory.

Before these cultural issues were common talk, however, certain events served as release valves for social tension and battlegrounds for dueling ideals. Rather than serving as winking recipients of tribal loyalty, the participants openly embraced and championed the causes of a side. In 1972, the burgeoning women’s liberation movement in America began to meet fierce backlash from a patriarchal system unwilling to give up the benefits of privilege to achieve equality. As the Equal Rights Amendment languished, stakeholders on either side of the issue found a reason to cheer on the tennis court for either Billie Jean King or Bobby Riggs.

Their head-to-head matchup was more than just a series of serves and volleys. It was, as the title of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ new film about the duel suggests, a Battle of the Sexes.

Depressingly, the cause of gender equality and basic dignity for women had to prove itself exceptional to advance against rampant misogyny masquerading in a thin veneer of respectability. King, portrayed with heady weight by Emma Stone, needed to keep her head held high and her mouth mostly shut to gain any kind of foothold of public support. Riggs, an oafish tennis has-been played by Steve Carell, can engage in mawkish sexist schtick without provoking much ire. The notion that disenfranchised groups must be twice as good for half as much was alive and well in Nixon-era America.

Dayton and Faris certainly knew that Battle of the Sexes would prove relevant to our times (Otherwise, why make it?), but likely could not imagine the extent to which the story of a highly qualified professional female facing off against a washed-up philanderer caught in an extended branding exercise would strike such a nerve. It’s easy to reduce the film to such comparisons, and the frequent heavy-handed nods to contemporary struggles in Simon Beaufoy’s script all but invites them. Comments made by crusty old male characters in leather-backed chairs might as well have been lifted from a Breitbart comments section.

Yet merely analyzing from the perspective of a 2017 audience denies the capabilities of the film, which provides an instructive analysis of how gender bias operates in ways both insidious and obvious. Yes, Riggs makes for an easy villain with his graying Austin Powers haircut and full line of “chauvinist” attire (yes, on one occasion, the word is fittingly misspelled). It also helps that Carell does a wonderfully inspired reinterpretation of his Michael Scott archetype, converting the latent misogyny into overt appeals for what could now be described as “men’s rights.”

Riggs is merely the gross whitehead on the cultural malady of sexism. Battle of the Sexes picks up on the many ways it operates beneath the surface, from the micro-aggressions of the radio host who points out that the female players “are definitely cuter than the men” to the so-called authorities who make biological appeals that women cannot handle pressure as well as men while paying lip service to gender equity.

The film never loses sight of the human toll of this inequality. Yes, everyone should care about it on a conceptual, structural level, but Dayton and Faris never lose sight of the many ways discrimination causes personal wounds. Pioneers may receive lauding and appreciation later in life, but as they blaze their bold new trails, these people face tremendous backlash for their iconoclasm. That pain is most evident in the performance of Emma Stone, who is giving just that – a performance. Stone could coast along on the sheer force of her personality alone and still charm anyone. But here, she’s not just the charming figure from late night appearances. She is Billie Jean King in body, mind and spirit.

Stone does not move, for example. She strides with the posture of a woman who relies on the strength of her body for work. Her face careens between the confidence that the world can accept her as the best tennis player of her gender and the insecurity that everything could fall away if the world knew who she truly was. At this point in her life, Billie Jean King was holding her sexuality as a secret, the burden of which clearly expresses itself in the dampening of Stone’s usually effervescent smile.

Battle of the Sexes does explore this dimension of King’s character as she looks to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) to help fulfill some of the deep emotional needs that her devoted husband Larry (Austin Stowell) cannot. It’s important Battle of the Sexes included Marilyn – to reduce her role or eliminate her altogether would have been nothing short of erasure. But Marilyn’s scenes, tender and important as they might be, are the film’s weak link. She essentially drops off the radar in the second act, robbing potency from the emotional climax of their relationship arc.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of other characters to help pick up the slack. Dayton and Ferris assemble a massive ensemble of talented performers to bring the manifold speaking roles in Battle of the Sexes to vibrant life. Whether it’s the fellow female tennis players who follow King into an uncertain separate league or King’s briefly appearing parents, the bench is replete with talented character actors who perk up every scene. No wonder Dayton and Faris shoot the actual tennis battle almost exclusively in a master shot – they save all the cutting to get the reactions of their cast in the stands.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10

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Marshall's work has been featured on FSR, LWL, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Christian Science Monitor, Vague Visages & Movie Mezzanine. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs.