Battle of the Sexes is the story of the iconic tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. A self-declared chauvinist pig, Riggs had stated women were the inferior sex and he challenged any woman in the world to beat him and King fired up by the already rampant sexism within the game accepts.
The roles of these two combatants are played by Emma Stone and Steve Carrell both excel in their depiction of these sparring pros. Both are likeable, charming and pig headed in equal measure making the match an even contest in some aspects at least. The titular Battle of the Sexes match however, is only part of the story as both of these individuals are living alternatives lives to those portrayed in the glare of camera lenses.
Billie Jean King is in the throws of discovering/accepting her sexuality, in times when such relationships were frowned upon. While married to the square chinned Larry King (Austin Stowell) she enters into a brief relationship with hairdresser Marilyn (Anrdea Riseborough) in what must be one of the most romantic and enchanting first meets since Todd Hayne’s film Carol. Hiding in plain sight while on tour of the newly founded WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), the struggles of desire versus the maintenance of public persona, provide noticeable tension in some of the films better sequences. The moment of reveal for husband Larry is heart felt and contains part relief, part comedy and also a tangible sense of heartbreak as he comes to terms with the truth of his wife’s true desires.
Likewise, Riggs played with great effervescence by Carrell is hiding his true self. A gambling habit funded by the wealth of his marriage has an air of tragedy to it. He desperately wants to be relevant again, seeking to escape the record books that now house his career and thrust himself back towards the spotlight he is playing the role of chauvinist and revelling in the attention it brings him. A deep love for his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) is the frayed string holding his marriage together and is portrayed with no traits of his on court chauvinistic bravado. Carrell provides moments of great comedy but only glimpses momentarily at the tragedy of Riggs, his gambling problems, that see him cast out fo home and the sadness that haunts the discarded star.
The sexism of the time is an ever present force in the background. The female tennis stars described as ‘lovely ladies’ by commentators and similar phrases that stick out like sore thumbs in today’s vernacular (thankfully). The treatment these athletes receive due to their gender is rightly called out for its nonsensical place in society. Stone plays King with great fire in these moments, and you can sense this is not perhaps a feeling that she is simply channeling for a role.
The battle cry of these icons of feminism still sadly linger and and are still sadly all too relevant. While progress has been made in so many aspects, there is still a way to go before society’s attitudes toward equality of pay, and indeed relationships reaches game, set and match.