Fox Searchlight’s Battle of the Sexes is the film adaptation of a pivotal cultural event in American history. In 1973, former tennis great Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) challenged Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), then Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) to an exhibition match. He wanted to prove to the world that men where superior to women in sports. Dubbing himself as the “male chauvinist pig”, Riggs was a huckster, gambling addict, and showman who saw a big money opportunity and exploited it. Billie Jean King, the world’s top women’s tennis player, was fighting her own battle for equal pay and sexual liberation. Drawn unwillingly into Riggs gambit, she clearly understood the gravity of the moment. The hopes and dreams of women everywhere fell on her mighty shoulders.
From the husband and wife filmmaking team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes is a sublime achievement. The dynamic duo behind Little Miss Sunshine handles multiple thorny issues with deft aplomb. Women’s liberation, sexual freedom, equal pay for equal work, this is heady stuff. There’s a fine line between preaching the gospel and dictating it. Dayton and Faris use whimsy as the balm to soothe the serious. Yes, there are messages to be delivered, but it needs to be done in an entertaining way that hits home instead of drilling home. They show the characters, warts and all, with an even hand. It is the textbook definition of comedy and drama.
Oscar and Bafta winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) needs to clear more space on the shelf. He has written another beautiful, engaging film. Beaufoy avoids the pitfall of simplicity. It would be easy to brand Riggs a villain, King a hero, and draw straight lines in between. This is not the case at all. Beaufoy’s approach is textured. Every character and setting is multi-dimensional. The build up to the match is viewed with a wide perspective.
Beaufoy’s script shows life on the women’s tour as they fight the system for equal pay. Outside of King and her personal life, he gives ample time to Margaret Court. She had her children and husband with her on tour. Crammed into tiny hotel rooms, shuffling from place to place, without the support men’s tennis. Even though Court was morally and philosophically opposed to King, they were both elite athletes fighting to stay on top of their game. The same goes for Beaufoy’s portrayal of Bobby Riggs. He takes time to show his home life, his relationship with his wife and children. Riggs was an outlandish buffoon, but not a hateful or evil man. It would have been so easy to put these characters in a box to be cheaply exploited. Beaufoy humanizes his cast by making them relatable.
The acting performances are tremendous throughout the ensemble cast. Carell and Stone lead the way with sophistication. They are nuanced, especially when facing adversity. There are significant subplots regarding King’s initial foray into homosexuality and Riggs failing home life. Tennis is the headliner, but these people were knee deep in other serious situations. Elisabeth Shue and Andrea Riseborough stand out as Riggs wife and King’s lover respectively. Sarah Silverman is also fantastic as Gladys Heldman, the orchestrator of the women’s tennis movement. Carell and Stone are deserving of every accolade, but let’s not forget their amazing supporting players. Battle of the Sexes is a team effort.
Fox Searchlight Pictures has a behemoth contender come award season. Battle of the Sexes will be a major player in the acting, directing, and screenwriting categories. I absolutely loved this film. Battle of the Sexes is one of the best movies of the year.