‘Battle of the Sexes’ becomes an instant classic

The Battle of the Sexes is one of the most iconic moments in sports history, a watershed event that had and continues to have an outsized impact on American popular culture relative to the popularity of tennis as a sport. 29 year old World No. 2 Billie Jean King’s convincing victory over 55 year old tennis hall of fame Bobby Riggs in 1973 took a chauvinist’s attempt at a self-aggrandizing publicity stunt and turned it into a high-stakes athletic triumph that vindicated both women’s tennis as a sport and the labor rights of female athletes that King had been fighting for, all while second wave feminism was washing over the United States in full force. Such material is perfectly suited for a sports movie and demanding of one well done. Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, delivers on all counts to provide an instant classic to the genre’s canon.

Emma Stone is at the top of her game as King, and Steve Carell shines as a fully fleshed out but never too sympathetic Riggs – but the genius of the film is that for all the symbolic weight of the title bout, the narrative spends most of its time on both the bigger picture of feminist politics embodied by the match and King’s personal struggles within that cultural landscape. As the film opens, King’s primary conflict is with Jack Kramer, a less cartoonish but more insidiously misogynistic broadcaster, promoter and renowned former player who is speaking against equal pay for women players. King, having become the first women to earn $100,000 in prize money, leads a boycott of the Women’s Tennis Association and – with the help of Sarah Silverman’s World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman – creates an independent women’s tour. In that sense, the ensuing first act is reminiscent of nothing so much as baseball classic A League of their Own. 

King’s initiative is complicated when Riggs, whose marriage is falling apart due to a gambling habit, takes advantage of the public tension of the moment to monetize his misogyny by challenging the No. 1 women’s player in the world, and to that end is rebuffed by an incredulous King. But when King loses her ranking to Margaret Court, the Australian superstar accepts Riggs’ challenge and, to the shock of her tour-mates, loses decisively.

Court is one of the few characters that is not fully fleshed out, but the narrative uses what space it has for her to emphasize the difference in Court’s and King’s approach to the Battle of the Sexes. Court, a conservative Christian who ultimately aligns herself against many goals of the feminist movement, tolerates Riggs’ sexist overtures while playing as if the stakes are confined to a one-off exhibition tennis match. King, whose crusade for equal pay had no time for Riggs’ antics before Court’s loss made clear the need for a statement win, gives her all to defeat, discredit and embarrass Riggs, all while inhabiting her sport not only as an unapologetic women but also as a closeted lesbian.

This second aspect of King’s identity is tied to the true emotional core of the film: not a sports drama, but a love story between King and her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett. Their illicit affair is bursting with romantic tension from their first interaction, and the film shamelessly and joyously indulges in romantic tropes that make full use of cinematic license to tell the kind of classic love story so rarely afforded to same gender relationships. Hard realities are met head on, especially in the depiction of King’s husband Larry as he discovers the truth, but difficulties of the relationship never lessen the impact of love on King’s drive and ultimate victory.

As for Riggs, Carell’s portrayal works so well because it emphasizes his complexity and vulnerability, especially in scenes with his children, while simultaneously never letting him off the hook for both his overt misogyny and the related entitlement that causes him to fail as a husband.

In the end, though, Riggs is portrayed not as evil but as pathetic, a bloviating and overcompensating agent of a vile cultural force who talks big and falls hard, while the patriarchal system that enabled him continues to thrive. King beats Riggs, proves Kramer wrong and secures equal pay, but her life of off-screen activism will see a never-ending struggle against the misogyny of Riggs and Kramer.

While it is important to acknowledge that King’s place in the second wave feminist zeitgeist can’t be separated from her status as a socioeconomically privileged athlete (the implications of which are driven home when she enters the Astrodome on a litter carried by men dressed in the style of Egyptian slaves), Battle of the Sexes takes the most important and the most thrilling parts of history’s most famous tennis match and turns it into one of the most unique and effective sports films ever made.

Battle of the Sexes, shown at Images Cinema last week, exposes the sexual revolution and the rise of the womens movement. Photo courtesy of Deadline.