By Leslie C. Halpern
This biographical film by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris takes an unexpectedly lighthearted look at the heavy topics of sexism, prejudice, and addiction during the 1970s when Bobby Riggs challenged Billy Jean King to a tennis match dubbed Battle of the Sexes.
This film highlights the music of the era and the (now ludicrous) clothing of that time period. It also shines a spotlight on the pill-popping gambling addict known as Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the former men’s world tennis champion, now a two-bit hustler and media clown, who takes delight in his sexist attitudes and behavior.
The Fear of Being Judged
If it weren’t for men like Riggs there would be no need for staunch feminists and activists like Billy Jean King (Emma Stone). Her pure love of tennis motivates her to achieve the highest rank in women’s tennis, but the male chauvinists dominating sports and media force her into taking a public stand. Due to prejudice and the fear of being judged, King also hides her emerging lesbian relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough in soft, dreamy close-ups). Her new feelings complicate her existing life (which includes a loving husband), but are only a small part of a much larger, more important story.
A Media Circus Clown
King’s heroic character displays impressive physical skills and endurance, in addition to a strong will and compassionate nature. Riggs, however, is more than the media circus clown he’s made out to be. Carell’s version prances on the furniture with his young son, appears to love his wife (although he lies to her incessantly), and makes a mockery out of the big tennis match. But the women-hating attitude beneath that over-the-top behavior is anything but amusing. In addition, his gambling addiction gets treated like a disagreeable habit, rather than the disease it really is.
At the screening I attended, during the final “Where are they now” captions at the end, it was noted that Riggs continued his gambling addiction his entire life. This reference elicited laughter throughout the theater, which indicates the audience shared the filmmakers’ opinion that Riggs is merely a harmless buffoon, instead of a danger to himself and others. Kudos to Stone and Carell for terrific performances, but it’s a shame the filmmakers chose to trivialize the sad ripple effects of sexism, prejudice, and addiction.
Battle of the Sexes
- This fact-based film explores the private lives and the very public 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billy Jean King and ex-men’s world champion Bobby Riggs.
- Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue
- Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
- Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
- Genre: Biopic, Sports
- Run Time: 121 minutes
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity)