“I’m not saying women are better…I’m saying we deserve some respect.”
Battle of the Sexes chronicles a watershed moment for the women’s liberation movement. And given the very bad behavior by very powerful men in Hollywood and other high-profile industries that has come to light in recent months, the movie suddenly feels particularly timely despite being set 45 years ago. But even if that weren’t the case, this film — which dramatizes the 1973 exhibition match between top-ranked female player Billie Jean King and former male champion Bobby Riggs — would still be a funny, heartfelt winner.
Emma Stone stars as the iconic Billie Jean King. The film begins with Billie Jean and “World Tennis” magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confronting Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and his fellow honchos at the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association over the fact that the top prize for the male champion at an upcoming tournament was slated to be eight times greater than the women’s prize, despite equal ticket sales. King, Heldman and a small group of players decide to establish their own tour, which grants them freedom but puts a financial strain on everyone involved. Meanwhile, Billie Jean also starts a relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), even though she was married at the time. (Her husband’s name was Larry King, and no…it’s not this guy.)
“I’m gonna put the ‘show’ back in ‘chauvinism.’”
Steve Carell stars as Bobby Riggs, who was formerly the top-ranked player in the world. The Riggs we meet is a charismatic gambling addict in his 50’s who is married to a wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue) and impossibly bored without the limelight. As a result, he decides to challenge Billie Jean to an exhibition match unofficially dubbed “Sexist Pig vs. Women’s Lib.” King initially rejects Riggs, but — as you can probably tell from this movie’s poster and Blu-ray cover — eventually decides to take him on in a match that was viewed by 90 million people around the world.
Since the Billie Jean/Bobby “Battle of the Sexes” is one of the most famous tennis matches of all time, directors Jonathan Drayton and Valerie Faris — working from a script by Simon Beaufoy — knew they couldn’t base the movie’s drama around, “Who will win?” (It’s just as well since the tennis scenes in the film are probably the worst thing about it.) Instead, the filmmakers focus the action on the emotional stakes of the match for both players, while placing their clash — and Billie spearheading the Virginia Slims tour — in their proper historical context.
Stone — coming off her Oscar win for La La Land — may not be the obvious choice to play Billie Jean King, but the actress’s whip-smart, game-for-anything presence on screen is a strong match for the sports icon. In Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean is pulled in various directions: she’s fighting for the women’s liberation movement, she’s fighting unprecedented urges that could destroy her marriage, and (oh yeah) she’s fighting to remain a top-ranked tennis player. Stone does a strong job of conveying Billie Jean’s conflict, which makes her romantic moments with Riseborough a welcome reprieve. (It helps that the two actresses have great, tender chemistry.)
Fortunately for Stone, she doesn’t have to do nearly as much heavy lifting as Billie Jean did because Battle of the Sexes is surprisingly generous to Bobby Riggs. By that I mean that Riggs both gets more screen time than I expected and that his character comes across more as a charming huckster than the “chauvinist pig” he claims to be. A big part of the credit goes to Carell, who mixes humor and heart as well as anyone working today. (The actor also spent seven seasons finding the lovable goofball within clueless boss Michael Scott on The Office.) Carell does an excellent job conveying the idea that putting on a show was infinitely more important than “keeping women down.”
In addition to Riseborough, the movie’s strong supporting cast also includes standout turns by Silverman (the standup comic continues to impress with her acting work as the brassy counterpart to Billie Jean’s quieter strength), Pullman (really relishing the chance to play an actual chauvinist), and Alan Cumming (as the Virginia Slims tour’s costume designer who is attuned to Billie Jean’s sexual awakening).
Although the climactic match drags a bit and the result won’t be a surprise to a significant section of the audience, there is still plenty of room for Battle of the Sexes to surprise audiences. I consider myself to be a reasonably knowledgeable sports fan, so I knew the outcome of Billie Jean and Bobby’s match…but I had no idea their clash was actually the second time Riggs played a top-ranked female player in that year. The filmmakers also do a tremendous job of immersing us in the early 1970s time period in which the movie is set through both the look of the film and their soundtrack cuts. Speaking of which…
Battle of the Sexes is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 30 mbps. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — with a big assist from cinematographer Linus Sandgren — shot the film in a way that made it seem like it could’ve been made in the early ’70’s. That means we get a somewhat softer and grittier image than we’re accustomed to from modern HD presentations. There’s also some leftover mod fashions and décor from the 1960s — mostly courtesy of Alan Cumming’s costume designer Ted Tinling — which results in some groovy, slightly muted colors. The palette here is warm and sun-kissed throughout, with interior scenes displaying the sort of yellowish tint that is jarring now that so many people have switched to LED bulbs. This is a great, trasportive presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is dialogue-driven, which means the extra channels are sort of overkill. Most of the action remains in the front speakers, even during livelier press conference sequences or montages where Riggs is “preparing” for his big match. Speaking of those montages, the movie’s song cues — which includes “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James & The Shondells and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” — are the moments when this track really perks up. Separation is pinpoint, with each side and rear speaker accounting for a different sonic element, most noticeably during the pageantry leading up to the climactic match.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Raw Footage — Billie Jean’s Grand Entrance: (2:17) Some brief, audio-free footage of Emma Stone-as-Billie Jean King being carried into her big showdown with Riggs as if she were Cleopatra. Includes several angles, including some point-of-view footage from Billie Jean’s perspective.
Reigniting the Rivalry: (18:52) This solid “Making of” has key cast and crew members talking about their characters and the impact they had on history. (Stone calls the King/Riggs clash “the sports world’s version of the moon landing” in that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.) There’s some vintage footage of King and Riggs here, and we also learn that Carell trained for his tennis scenes with Lornie Kuhle, who worked with the real-life Riggs and is played in the film by Eric Christian Olsen.
Billie Jean King — In Her Own Words: (10:30) The sports icon and activist speaks plainly and passionately about the events depicted in the film. She talks about her relationship with Riggs (who apparently really called her at all hours to try and arrange their match) and making sacrifices for future generations alongside her fellow players on the Virginia Slims tour. King also states that sports is a microcosm for society, which was certainly the case with the women’s liberation movement and her high-profile match with Riggs. Definitely worth a look.
Battle of the Sexes isn’t showy or grandiose enough to be Oscar bait — even though Carell’s performance has been getting some much-deserved love during awards season — nor was it ever meant to be a huge, crowd-pleasing sports movie. As a result, the film sort of fell through the cracks in terms of connecting with audiences in a major way. Here’s hoping this well-made little gem finds a second life on Blu-ray.