In some ways, the titular tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King featured in Battle of the Sexes, operates as a microcosm of the 2016 election: boorish letch challenges more qualified woman in a contest that is bigger than what it is on the surface. The denouement can be a bit cathartic in that way. I’m not as familiar with the actual match, other than a vague awareness of a TV movie called “When Billie Beat Bobby” so I had some idea which way this was going to go.
Billie Jean (Emma Stone) is not just the top tennis player, but she’s also an advocate for equality, forming her own tennis league when the prize pools for women’s tennis were not equitable with men’s. Searching for relevance, compulsive gambler Bobby (Steve Carrell) is just looking for another fix, something to bring him back to the public eye and that lets him exploit his self-proclaimed chauvinism. It’s in these times where the challenge begins to take form. Amidst all of this, Billie Jean is coming to terms with her sexuality, brought to the foreground by a flirtatious hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). Though reluctant at first, Billie Jean forages ahead, both with the match and the hairdresser.
Stone, behind King’s dark hair and glasses is nearly unrecognizable, but imbues Billie Jean with ferocious strength in certain moments, and a quiet awkwardness in others. It’s a great performance, and one that makes me sad that Stone just won an Oscar for La La Land. She’s way more deserving for this. Carrell makes a caddish lout somewhat endearing and completely watchable. He’s also pure gold. There’s a sadness baked into everything Riggs does and even though his public persona is disgusting, there’s an honesty in the hopelessness of the smaller scenes. Sarah Silverman as King’s manager Gladys steals every scene she’s in and effectively plays a cartoon while making her feel like a real person. Natalie Morales, Riseborough, Elisabeth Shue, Alan Cumming and Bill Pullman all provide excellent support.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the movie plays well to an audience, hitting all the big moments. But there is some amazing camera work throughout. Riseborough on a hotel balcony, Stone crying in an empty locker room, Carrell sneaking away after the final match – all amazing and each quietly delicate in their own way. Overall, I loved everything about this movie and how everything from script to performances all coalesced into the creation of one of the best movies of the year.
My Grade – A