Battle of the Sexes is a spirited, frequently funny drama whose significance sneaks up on you in much the same way as does its backdrop, a polarized America beset by cultural ferment and moral uncertainty. It’s a contentious time in which battles over women’s rights and equality are a running theme; in which a presidential administration’s legitimacy and the nation’s self-confidence are being steadily eroded by a seemingly endless succession of damaging revelations leaking out of Washington, DC; and in which a circus-like sporting event pitching man against woman could assume larger-than-life proportions.
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No, we’re not talking about this past summer; Battle of the Sexes takes place 44 years ago, in 1973, when 55-year-old former men’s tennis champ and self-proclaimed “Number One Male Chauvinist Pig” Bobby Riggs challenged the top players on the women’s circuit to a match, arguing that beating them would prove the general superiority of men and return women to their proper place. After he beat top-ranked Australian Margaret Court in a “Mother’s Day Massacre,” Riggs successfully goaded Billie Jean King, also at the top of her game, to play him in Houston’s Astrodome for a $100,000 prize (hey, that was real money back then—more than $500,000 in today’s dollars).
courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
The directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose chief successes to date are the much more tight-focus gems Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks deftly fill in the big-picture America that surrounded Riggs and King in the run-up to the “Battle of the Sexes”—including the Equal Rights Amendment struggle, Roe v. Wade, and Watergate. But Dayton and Faris also vividly evoke the gloriously cheesy colors, flavors, and sounds of American pop culture on the cusp of the disco era, a time that now seems greasy and seamy—and also blessed with a kind of carefree innocence.
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Carefree would be the furthest thing from King, who clambered to the top of her sport with husband Larry in tow but realized right around the time of her entanglement with Riggs that she was irrefutably attracted to women—a reality that could, with one careless revelation, doom her career. And who is it who so persuasively portrays this manifestly guarded woman, who characteristically crouches behind sensible eyeglasses and a jet-black mane with bangs? Why it’s…the eternally pixieish Emma Stone, who handily pulls off this mind-bending transformation (and is wonderfully believable as she falls in love with a hairdresser, played with glowing perfection by up-and-comer Andrea Riseborough). As for Riggs—a compulsive gambler who combined dorky authenticity with a streak of raffish, self-deprecating irreverence? Well, Steve Carell was born for the role, and he aces it.
Melinda Sue Gordon
Add in Sarah Silverman, wonderfully caustic as the ex–tennis star and feminist warrior Gladys Heldman, who spearheaded the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association (for which all involved were briefly banished from the U.S. Tennis Association); Elisabeth Shue, quietly moving as Riggs’s semi-estranged wife, whom she plays with physical and emotional eloquence; and Alan Cumming, coolly puckish as Ted Tinling, dress designer to the women’s tennis stars, who sees through King’s married-woman act as if it were an embarrassingly sheer nightdress. “Times change,” he says to King at a crucial moment. “You should know you just changed them.”
And Battle of the Sexes shows us just how much times have changed, despite all. Sure, John McEnroe recently asserted offhandedly that Serena Williams would be ranked about 700th in the world if she played men’s tennis; and the now-elderly church minister Margaret Court just raised a stink, and many hackles, by slamming Qantas Airlines for publicly supporting same-sex unions. But Billie Jean King won. And found love with a woman. And her last words to Riggs, as he lay dying of prostate cancer in 1995, were “I love you.”
This article originally appears in the October 2017 issue of ELLE.
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