The 400-Word Review: Battle of the Sexes
By Sean Collier
October 4, 2017
No undue pressure is put on the social issues at play in Battle of the Sexes, and with good reason.
The film depicts a tennis match between an aging boor who described himself as a chauvinist pig and one of the greatest crusaders for equal rights in the history of sport (if not history, full stop). The match served as a symbolic but vital victory for what was then termed women’s liberation, and the life of Billie Jean King mirrors the march of feminism through the 20th century.
These issues cannot be downplayed in telling the story of those involved and the match at hand, so the filmmakers — co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy — do not strain themselves to highlight them. They highlight themselves.
We instead get an interesting, if broad, portrait of the two athletes who took the court in 1973. As King, Emma Stone focuses on the restraint required of the superstar at the height of her powers; the decision to explore her sexuality by way of an affair (Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett) is a tortured and hopeless one for King, petrified of the impact on her career and women’s tennis should she be forced out of the closet. Stone pushes the emotional exhaustion faced by King — not just due to her private life, but due to the strain of representing all of womankind in the face of Riggs’ antics — entirely into her body, letting her face and frame carry that weight while her voice remains steadfast.
Humanity is given to Riggs through a careful performance by Steve Carell. Unwilling to lean into cartoonish villainy — Bill Pullman does that just fine, as condescending bigwig Jack Kramer — Carell demonstrates the desperation to retain relevant (and hide his many personal shortcomings) that drove Riggs to become a living publicity stunt. His struggles with gambling, too, are given nuanced attention; this is not an after-school-special on problem behavior, but rather a realistic look at a unique form of addiction.
The supporting cast is strong as well, with Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming and Natalie Morales turning in fine performances. Dayton and Faris steer the ship with care, charm and wit; the filmmakers behind Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks are underworked and deserving of more than one project every five years. I hope Battle of the Sexes raises their profile again.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark