Brisk- Paced Dual Biopic
With the women’s lib movement, the Roe v. Wade ruling, the passage of Title IX, and Congressional ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment roiling in the background of 1973, a different event managed to step forward and garner the bulk of the American public’s (and world’s) attention. A little ol’ tennis match featuring the 55-year-old former men’s tennis champion Bobby Riggs facing off against the 29-year-old women’s star player Billie Jean King was a big thing and is what everyone remembers from that year.
If you were alive back then, you know of it. If you were born after, you’ve probably heard tell of the event that was watched by some 90 million television viewers worldwide. If not, check out the new film from husband/wife director team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) called Battle of the Sexes that chronicles the event that took place in the Houston Astrodome and remains, to this day, the largest attended tennis match of all time with 30,000 spectators.
While the tennis event -- and its outcome -- forms the film’s backbone, it is the contentious issues of the day, like feminism, women’s equality, economic parity, and male chauvinism, along with the personal lives of the players themselves, that come alive so vividly and give the story (by writer Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire) a familiar, if not welcome, relevance. In fact, the film is better when it gets away from the tennis action and focuses on the lives and relationships of its human subjects. Battle of the Sexes is kind of a dual biopic that chronicles the lives of King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell) around the time when Riggs challenged King to a tennis match with a winner-take-all prize of $100,000.
As the film opens, we meet King at the top of her game as the top-ranked female player, having just won the U.S. Open Women’s singles championship. As a rebuke to the current perception that women were not equal to men (and should not be paid the same as men), King and manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) strike out with a small group of female players to form the Women’s Tennis Association and garner the sponsorship of Virginia Slims cigarettes. Hey, it was a different time!
It is while on tour that the typically reserved and totally sports-focused King meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) with whom she strikes up a forbidden lesbian relationship which she keeps hidden from stay-at-home husband Larry (Austin Stowell). Things were much more complicated behind the scenes than anyone knew. Though the entire thing feels and looks like a circus on the outside, for King it was far more serious as she struggles with her sexuality while trying to maintain her focus on the forthcoming match.
We then meet the flamboyant Riggs, long past his best playing days, and now afflicted with a gambling problem that threatens his marriage to heiress wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). Always the hustler, showman, and self-proclaimed chauvinist, Riggs ramps up the hype machine in the days leading up to the famous match by lobbing volleys of disparaging insults not only to King, but to the talents of all women (whom he agrees have their place in tennis. After all, who else would shag the balls?)
The story swaps back and forth between the lives of its two main characters while maintaining a brisk pace with a refreshing sense of balance that eventually leads up to the big match. It’s no spoiler to reveal that King wins in overwhelming fashion and by doing so, sets not only her own life on a new trajectory, but the lives of women across the entire country as well. It was that big of a deal and King’s victory finally allowed women to truly believe that anything a man could do, they could better.
Battle of the Sexes isn’t a sports movie, but rather a well-told human story about real people struggling to come to grips with who they really are in a world that wasn’t quite ready for what was coming. It is refreshing to be reminded of how far we’ve come in battling a belief system that wasn’t very flattering only a short time ago.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated “PG-13” for some sexual content and partial nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.