The story of Battle of the Sexes is a very well known one, well enough that I am going to be a little more free with spoilers in this review than I usually am so consider yourself forewarned on that front. Battle of the Sexes is a biopic telling the story behind one of the most famous tennis matches in history – the one between fifty-five year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) which was broadcast to nine million viewers and became a symbol of the entire feminist movement in the United States. The film starts on the day Billie Jean and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) find out that the Pacific Southwest Tournament was offering the women participants 15% the prize money men were getting despite the fact that women drew just as large of a crowd as men did for their matches. They and many other female pros boycott the tournament and start the Women’s Tennis Association with its own tour, and with the first shots fired our story begins.
It goes without saying that Battle of the Sexes has strong feminist themes. The entire story focuses on a group of women led by one particularly talented and popular woman who decide they’ve had enough with the rules men set down for them, then go on to prove in no uncertain terms that they can get along just fine on their own without the men getting involved, thank you very much, and not only that but that they can literally beat the men at their own game. It’s also an excellent hindsight view of where feminism stood at the start of 1970’s, a movement which already had a lot of attention and momentum, but which was largely being seen as a faze and something of a joke by the men in power who honestly could not understand what women were upset about. This story is about a lot more than just feminism in the ’70’s, though, and Battle of the Sexes does its job of showing us the other myriad forces involved admirably.
While women’s rights were at the forefront of the American consciousness at the time, gay rights were still very much overlooked. Battle of the Sexes doesn’t address the issue of gay rights as much as it does show Billie Jean King’s very personal journey of her discovery of her sexual orientation and the very personal reasons she had for remaining in the closet as long as she did. While the mores of the time must have certainly had some influence on Billie Jean, Battle of the Sexes is somewhat remarkable in the way it shows a life where shame is not the primary motivator in hiding your sexuality, but rather respect, love, and professionalism, all positive reasons making for a story causes you to admire Billie Jean King even more rather than pity her or feel shame for our culture.
The forces surrounding Bobby Riggs also shed light on a hot topic – depression and gambling addiction. It would be easy given the feminist themes in the forefront of the film to make Bobby Riggs into a villain, but writer Simon Beaufoy dodges that temptation by showing Bobby Riggs to be a person haunted by his past and who will do anything to recapture his former glory and the way it made him feel. It shows Riggs as a man who has nothing against women nor feminism, but who saw in what was going on in women’s tennis an opportunity to take center stage again and to fuel his love for high stakes competition. While this makes him a comic character most of the time, the glimpses into his family life show us the greater truth behind a warm, friendly, loving man being chased by demons of his own making.
With the deluge of biopics being released right now, Battle of the Sexes sets itself apart largely by being the one that tries to most evenly split the difference where spectacle and realism are concerned, and for the most part it manages that. The big name stars and the comedy and showmanship inherent in the story make for entertaining spectacle, while the screenplay gives us a depth to the characters and themes which could easily have been lacking. This leaves us with a film that doesn’t have the sheer entertainment value which American Made gave us nor the remarkably insightful character studies of Stronger, rather than looking the worse for not leaning one direction or the other, we end up with a film that will never be seen as great, but will have wide appeal.
Final verdict: Battle of the Sexes gives us larger than life personalities, character studies and themes with true depth, the spectacle of sports, romance, empowerment – in short, it’s a film that very nearly has it all. While having it all means that it doesn’t truly achieve greatness in any one way, it still gives us a film that should satisfy nearly everyone excepting perhaps the most obsessive action adventure devotee. Battle of the Sexes is one of the easiest movies in a while for me to recommend, but don’t take that to mean that I think it’s exceptional, just that it’s a very well done film which should please nearly everyone.