In The Battle of the Sexes, co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, written by Simon Beaufoy, revisit an early and important story of Women’s Liberation movement.
Tennis was dominated by men, even though there was a small group of dedicated women players who would have to tag along behind and pick-up the scraps of promotional opportunities, attention and prize money. Billie Jean King, the number one women’s player at the time, was sick of it. She knew people enjoyed seeing women play and felt it unjust that they would make only a fraction of the money even though the stands were just as full for their matches as the men.
The women’s movement was not the only thing complicating U.S. culture during this time. There was also the escalating war in Vietnam and the ongoing challenges with racism and general unrest in the population. Change is hard.
Emma Stone bravely steps into the role of Billie Jean King and she shines. Ms. Stone transforms herself from the wispy, inexperienced budding actress we saw in La La Land to a powerful, activist athlete who stands up to the status quo and works tirelessly for women’s rights. That’s an amazing story on its own, but there is another storyline, Her journey to discovering her real sexual identity.
Just about everyone seems to be standing in her way. Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) heads the lawn tennis organization that schedules the tournaments and manages the rules of the association. He sets the men’s prize money at eight times what the women players will earn and doesn’t feel there’s anything wrong with it.
Then there’s Bobby Riggs, played with frightening precision by Steve Carell. Mr. Carell recreates the antics that the real Riggs staged as part of his one-man circus. Riggs was the ultimate chauvinist and a showman who wouldn’t stop talking. And he relished any and every opportunity to prove it. Although accomplished and largely self-made, he didn’t hesitate to indulge his desires at the expense of his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) even thought she was from a well to do family and supported him. Riggs has idea after idea and eventually comes up with an epic one. The ultimate battle of the sexes on a tennis court in front of a global audience with lots of money on the line. He tracks down Billie Jean who is on tour, waking her in the middle of the night to try and sell her the idea over the phone. She doesn’t bite.
The filmmakers weave together three individual constructs. The scenes with only women. These are by far the most interesting ones. The scenes featuring only men and groupings of segments where the men and women are in each other’s company, or watching each other on television, or speaking over the phone. This device is highly effective in sharpening the various points of view.
The scene that turns the tide is between Billie Jean and a random hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett. Ms. Barnett is played beautifully by British actress Andrea Riseborough who is a flower child of the time; both vulnerable but adventurous. One day Billie Jean appears in her salon chair waiting to have her hair done in advance of an upcoming tournament. She gets much more than a good cut. Their interaction moves from a casual discussion about what to do with her hair, to a moving and intimate experience. The filmmakers slowly tune out all other sounds in the salon and close in on the quality of Ms. Barnett’s voice. A calming cadence and warm tones that you hear only from a select group of people. A masseuse, a dental hygienist. a therapist, or in this case a hairdresser. They are trained to use their voices to instill calm and to allow the other person to relax and open up to the moment. Both people know exactly what has transpired. Ms. Barnett has become the catalyst that awakens Bille Jean’s true sexual self.
In contrast, the scenes with only the men are very boring. They are staged in stuffy clubs or locker rooms with the men always at the ready to banter about their superiority and enjoy the comfort in their place at the top. To them it’s always about the sport, the gamble, with little regard paid to woman’s potential. This might be somewhat of a harsh depiction, but it’s very effective and necessary to telling the story.
The production values of the film are solid. The filmmakers try to over produce. The pace is properly matched to the storytelling. They take their time and let the performances sink in. They also skillfully weave in numerous characters, adding depth and amusement to the picture. The final puts us right there in the Houston Astrodome alongside the 90 million people who tuned in.
Crisp performances by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, manager of the new women’s league and Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals, a top player and key to the success of the Virginia Slims tennis circuit.
Good artists are aware of their place they occupy in history. Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton have done society a favor by taking up this story now. Their timing amid the breaking news of women being abused by men makes this film more important and thereby elevates it above what it might have been if tackled at a different time.
Podcast of this review can be found on SoundCloud:
Soundtrack to The Battle of the Sexes by Nicholas Britell on Spotify.