Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
Written by Simon Beaufoy

Anyone who follows my writings knows that I have a certain affinity for sports, which easily spills over into my love of movies with sports movies! In all seriousness though, I have marathoned Baseball movies, and am currently attempting to do the same with Football. Tennis is not necessarily the most fruitful sports movie genre, certainly not one which I would be excited to marathon, and yet with 2017s Battle of the Sexes, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton have made sure people are aware of tennis for a few very important reasons. One is simply the importance of a player like Billie Jean King on the history of the game, but more importantly, they also draw focus to the famous Battle of the Sexes tennis match which pitted a female player versus a male player, to once and for all prove to audiences everywhere that the male was superior.

Today, we might take for granted the WTA, or Women’s Tennis Association. The Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) have dominated the women’s game for the better part of a decade, and there are plenty of exciting, young women tennis players. But it wasn’t always the case that the women’s game was treated with such respect. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was one of the best players on the circuit, but when she reached out to Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) in an attempt to gain equal pay as the men, Kramer laughed her out of the room, prompting her to form her own association with the help of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and a number of other notable female players such as Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and Aussie Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). After mild success on their new tour, former champion tennis player and compulsive gambler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) challenged first Margaret Court (then the women’s #1 player), and then Billie Jean in a “Battle of the Sexes, to prove once and for all that men are the superior player.

With a story and cast like this, I was expecting an entertaining film, one which would struggle to be any worse than enjoyable, but also fail to be any better than that too. However, Battle of the Sexes becomes one of the better movies of the year quite easily (it’s been a slow year in cinemas) with the amount of wonderful performances from the entire cast, as well as the genuine storytelling on display. In the current political climate, themes of woman empowerment and even same-sex relationships/marriage are certain to be explosive, and not for everyone’s political leanings. But it’s important to reflect on the struggles of those who pioneered these equal rights. It’s important to appreciate the struggles and discrimination they went through 40-50 years ago to appreciate the struggles that still exist in our society.

Emma Stone is a revelation as an eager, accomplished, and yet naive Billie Jean King. Her business acumen and ferocity on the tennis court are unmatched. She stood for something, believing in her battle and leading the charge to fight it. But the more tender and intimate side is captured beautifully in her relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, played by the wonderful Andrea Riseborough. Each scene we get between these two is a quiet moment of connection, enveloped with close-up photography and subtle touches. We also get just enough from Bobby Riggs to hate him as much as we feel sorry for him, and Steve Carrell seems perfectly cast as the self-proclaimed male chauvinist with a penchant for showmanship. Even Sarah Silverman is bang on as Gladys. The ensemble all around is perfectly suited.

Battle of the Sexes could have easily been a sleepwalk through a history lesson with relevant social messages and commentary, but instead it’s an intimate portrait of a woman motivated to be taken seriously. It’s fueled by its performances, but the production design is also notable here, making the film feel like it’s straight out of the 70s. It’s no wonder this is directed by the duo that brought us Little Miss Sunshine, as this film has just as much heart and just as much motivation to prove that no matter who you are, no matter what you stand for, or who or what you might love, everybody deserves a fair shake in life, everybody deserves an opportunity to pursue their dreams.

*** 1/2 – Great

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