Tennis is the only sport I fully understand as a result of playing for four years on my high school team. Compared to other teams in our league, the women’s team was pretty average – but we always ended the season with more wins than the men’s team. It’s not only rare for films about tennis to be made (although I do recommend 2004’s Wimbledon) but it’s especially unique for a film to discuss gender equality in sports. That being said, Battle of the Sexes is a true gem.
The film starts off with the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association, after Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) learns about the unequal prize money – the male winners received about eight times as much as their female counterparts – awarded after Wimbledon. Unable to comprehend why King would complain about such a large sum of money, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) challenges her to a match with $35,000 at stake. King declines, and Riggs eventually challenges Margaret Court, who strips King’s title as the number one player. Court accepts, and uncharacteristically plays off her game, losing miserably. King then realizes it’s her responsibility to take Bobby Riggs down, in order to prove that men and women are equal (at the very least) on the court.
Actual scenes of tennis-playing in the movie are few, so it is the performances that really ground this film. Stone is phenomenal as the legendary Billie Jean King. In fact, I would argue that she is more impressive in this role than she was with her Oscar winning-performance in La La Land. Stone is subtle and serious in portraying the tennis pro, trying to balance her career and struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. In her other roles, I was always aware of Emma Stone the actress; here, I totally forgot she was involved in the film at all. In other words, she became her role, and it wasn’t just because of the glasses and brunette, ’70s styled hair.
Carell shines as well as the hustler and former tennis pro Bobby Riggs. Addicted to gambling and wishing to relive his past glories, Carell comically and sensitively brings his character’s self-made celebrity status to life. Contrary to my expectation, he was not the villain; rather, he used the existent inequality and discrimination to his advantage, almost as a self-aware parody. Sarah Silverman is also predictably fun to watch as Gladys Helman, the manager of King and her fellow circuit players.
Battle of the Sexes incorporates many genres, and does it well. There’s a good mix of drama, comedy, biography, sports and feel-good inspiration, which is difficult to produce. Of course, if you’re looking purely for the thrill of watching an intense game, then you may be disappointed; but I was cheering every time King outmaneuvered Riggs on the court in the final minutes of the film (spoiler alert). Gender equality is certainly still an issue today, and in many occupations women are still paid less than men. Emma Stone, for instance, was the highest-paid actress of the year – which was still $42 million less than the highest-paid actor, Mark Wahlberg. In realities like this, it’s nice to have movies like Battle of the Sexes to remind us that, although we presently are in need of a more impending victory, we have been elevated by the ones that served us in the distant and more recent past.
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