|Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures|
Like athletes on the field laying it all on the line, sports movies have to have a certain finesse. They strive to capture the underdog versus the champions-that-can’t-be-beat, setting audiences on the sidelines to witness the push-and-pull of who deserves to win. Uplifting and compelling, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes is one of timeliest movies to come along, showcasing one of the biggest matches in tennis history and exploring the importance of perserverance.
In 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) began a revolution for pay equality when she discovered herself and her fellow teammates weren’t getting paid as much as their male counterparts. Starting their own women’s tournament sparks an exhibition for Wimbledon Champion turned hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to make women's lib a laughingstock. Along the way, King discovers more than the power of her voice and talent on the court, but also an attraction towards a hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite being married. King's defiance against playing by men's rules and Rigg's display of misogynistic showmanship kicks off a match for the ages.
In life, every day, we see how society splits up opportunities between genders, sexuality, religion, and race. There’s a hierarchy of respect that trickles down from those born with privilege or power and those without. Similar to A League of Their Own which reinforced female baseball players keeping America’s past-time alive during World War II, and Hidden Figures shining a light on women of color helping to send astronauts into space, Battle of the Sexes spotlights the making to one of tennis's biggest matches. Ignorance can be life and cinema's greatest villains, creating the tension here between Riggs's chauvinist exhibition and King feeling pressured to keep her attraction a secret and be a leader to women's rights. Their feud grows as we see them off the court, juggling drama to keep the story engaging and serving inspiration as a real game-changer now and in the future.
At the center of the movie is its leading cast. Having watched Emma Stone evolve between being a comedienne to dramatic star on the big screen, her performance here as King is one of her best so far. Beautifully mirroring her Oscars speech when she won Best Actress in La La Land, she hasn’t stopped growing as a performer and stepping out of her comfort zone, and that’s evident in how much she loses herself in this role. King is as vulnerable as she is strong-willed, allowing her to be scared of the second-hand homophobia and realizing her attraction to women, as well as being confident but doubtful of her ability to beat Riggs; to earn a victory for women at the time. Stone's main counterpart, Steve Carell as Riggs, is likable and funny, except for what he believes in. He's able to play a bigger-than-life personality to draw support in their match, but also ground down his personal issues like a floundering marriage and gambling addiction. He's not too over-the-top that his promotional escapades cashes in on the gender issues at the time. As much as King and Riggs are pitted against each other, the scripts engages in showing both of their strengths and weaknesses.
Considering the current climate of inequality, especially Hollywood right now, it’s bewildering that one of cinema’s better takes about a gay woman fighting to be respected has been widely ignored so far. A definite case can be made that the movie overlooks pivotal aspects of King's sexuality, but that longtime analysis of fact versus fiction is the same issue most biopics can't escape, and this one doesn't fare too badly. Some say the movie was too lighthearted and also contained too much plot, but for a two hour movie, it's the right length to see the main players' problems and saving most of the action for the big showdown. There's no missing the beats about who, what, when, why, and how the match between King and Riggs is set, and that's sometimes all a movie needs instead of stacking the deck so full it's hard to follow or heavy-handed.
Battle of the Sexes starts with King's stand for equal pay, and in the end her perseverance becomes about earning respect for herself and other female players; being treated as an equal is as important as being paid the same as our counterparts. As the years wore on, she became the first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Honor, and continued to fight for gay rights and Title XI. Meanwhile, Riggs accepted his participation in the second-wave women's movement becoming good friends with King for the rest of his life. That said, as inspiring as King's resolve is, it's difficult for Battle of the Sexes to not feel a little dated because the fight for equality is ongoing. Sometimes in this age we want to keep history in the past because it shows us how little the needle has moved, but it's necessary to be reminded of how some defied the norm. That's how small stances ultimately turn into great achievements. And we need everyone to make it happen.
Have you seen Battle of the Sexes?
What did you think?