Kernel Rating (out of 5): (4.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 121 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. This drama about the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is less about the match itself and more about the gender politics that surrounded it, including the women’s liberation movement, the horrible pushback from men, and the gender divisions in our country, themes that still feel relevant today. There is a lot of casual sexism, comments from men about women only belonging in the kitchen and the bedroom, women who are objectified (some skimpy bikinis and outfits), and other similar conversations. The film also tells the story of King’s growing awareness of her own sexual identity and her affair, so there is a subplot about marital infidelity, some implied sex scenes and nudity, and some kissing. Characters drink, smoke, and take pills, and there is some cursing and lewd jokes.
Emma Stone and Steve Carell are phenomenal in the slickly produced but thoroughly captivating ‘Battle of the Sexes.’ The film feels especially relevant for our current times, and its tackling of the crippling everyday sexism and judgment faced by women and the LGBT community is engrossing.
By Roxana Hadadi
Could Emma Stone win the Academy Award for Best Actress for the second year in a row, coming off last year’s victory for “La La Land”? With the captivating strength of her turn as women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes,” it’s certainly possible. Stone is thoroughly wonderful as the fascinatingly steely, gently loving, and resolutely confident King, and her performance is the magnetic center of this film.
“Battle of the Sexes” is, of course, being marketed as a sports film, about the 1973 tennis match between the aging male player Bobby Riggs and the steady female phenom King, the game that male chauvinists were certain would declare that women were inferior to men and that female activists knew would accomplish the opposite. It was viewed by 90 million people around the world, becoming a major cultural moment during a socially fraught time (sound familiar?). Sports films are often invigorating, exciting things, and “Battle of the Sexes” nails the propulsive thrill of tennis—but how the film balances that athletic focus with a gentle handling of King’s own sexual identity and her insistence for gender equality jettisons this film into something truly special.
“Billie Jean, what do you want?” a character asks the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, and for a while, it seems simple: King (Stone, of “Aloha”), sick of being pushed around by the sexist tennis hierarchy—men who openly say things like “The men are simply more exciting to watch ... it’s just biology”—decides to rally other female players into forming their own league, the WTA. While on tour, the women have to do it all (selling tickets, setting up the court, and of course, playing matches), but they hope the gamble will pay off and bring more interest to the game. They’re not playing for much money, but their pride and their self-worth are on the line.
Watching from the side is Bobby Riggs (Carell, of "Despicable Me 3"), a former pro tennis player turned hustler who attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings at his wife’s urging but spends the whole time mocking the other attendees for being bad gamblers. That’s exactly the kind of person Riggs is—bombastic, absurd, dismissive—and he’s aghast that women like King are complaining about equality. So he decides to blow up that personal opinion into something grander and more grotesque, knowing that appealing to sexists will garner him the attention and adoration he so craves, and challenges King to a match. “Life’s a gamble, that’s the thrill of it!” he says, but he’s so cocooned in his own privilege that he could never fathom what the match will mean either individually to the women he challenges or socially to the male horde he’s accommodating. He only cares about the sponsors and about the money, not the dangerous ideas he’s encouraging for his own material gain (again, sound familiar?).
The competition between Riggs and King is set: They’re each playing for individualistic reasons that have far greater social relevance. But while preparing for the match, King finds herself drawn to hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, of “Oblivion”), a California blonde who gives her a trim before the women’s tour. “There’s only ever been Larry,” King insists of the relationship between her and her devoted husband, but the connection between her and Marilyn is something else. As King navigates her growing understanding of her own sexuality, her game begins to suffer—and with everything she does representing all women, King assumes a role in the movement she may not have expected, and may not be ready to take on.
What directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy do so effectively is humanize practically everyone, providing a glimpse into what makes them tick. Riggs is a petulant jerk, but his fractured relationship with his family and his unquenching need to be loved are provided proper context. Carell is such a strong, empathetic actor that you almost feel for Riggs when the match turns away from him, but he’s also done such a good job selling Riggs’s self-involved mania that you remember his prejudice just in time.
Everything you need to know about King you understand from how hopeful Stone’s eyes get when she looks at Marilyn, the obsessive way she serves countless balls during a midnight training session, and the layered conversations she has with Larry (Austin Stowell, of “Bridge of Spies”) as he begins to understand what her relationship with Marilyn is. Stone captures the depth of this woman and the pressure of how it feels to represent all women, a responsibility that falls far too often on the best of us. “I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman,” King replies when someone asks if she’s a feminist, but with so many people deliberately mishearing her message (ahem, sound familiar?), King is forced to go farther and further for her game and her gender than any dissenter could ever expect.
“Battle of the Sexes” is quite slickly made, and its on-the-nose script has some moments that feel particularly manufactured for maximum emotional impact. But it’s also one of the best-acted films of the year so far, a masterfully created portrait of a particular moment in America that is still felt today. The relevance of “Battle of the Sexes” is only matched by its excellence.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.