REVIEW: Carell Beats Stone in ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Fox Searchlight Pictures

After watching a movie like Battle of the Sexes, I always want to do a history check.  Before seeing it, I was familiar with the famous tennis match held in the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973.  Without a refresher, I knew the match was between 55-year old Bobby Riggs and 29-year old Billie Jean King and that it represented something more than just a publicity stunt.  I was 10-years old at the time and, although I don’t remember watching the match, it is etched indelibly in my mind, I imagine due to the publicity surrounding the event.

What I didn’t remember was that four months earlier, on May 13, 1973, Riggs defeated the top woman’s player in the world, Margaret Court. Therefore, King was fighting for more than just herself or the woman’s movement; she also had to prove the previous match was a fluke. Focusing mostly on King, the movie spends a good deal of time on her personal life.  I don’t know how preoccupied she really was with her sexuality at the time, but Battle of the Sexes weaves it into the story as a vital element and contributing factor to her motivations.

Steve Carell succeeds better at looking and acting like Bobby Riggs than Emma Stone does as Billie Jean King. I realize they’re playing characters, not caricatures; however, while Carell’s resemblance is almost uncanny, Stone’s caused me to constantly think, “That’s not Billie Jean King.”  If you look at side-by-side pictures, Stone’s hair doesn’t even look right.  And it’s one of those performances where we know she’s dedicated to her sport only by what other people say about her, not by what we see her actually say or do herself.She’s not portrayed as someone who is as strong and devoted to her cause as I’ve come to believe Billie Jean King was. She’s easily distracted by her hairdresser, Andrea Riseborough (Marilyn Barnett) and spends more time in bed with her than on the tennis court with her opponents.  King’s infatuation with Riseborough is given as the explanation for why she loses the women’s championship to Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) prior to Court’s match with Riggs.  I suppose this humanizes her, as well as makes her more of an underdog with Riggs.

This element is just not as interesting to me as the larger social landscape of the early 1970s. I’d like to have a bigger picture of this era.  Instead, it’s represented mostly through Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), co-founder and Executive Director of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).  If Riggs expresses chauvinism in a comedic manner, Kramer expresses it in a serious one, forcing women players to form their own association in 1973 because he believes the two genders are physically not equal and therefore don’t deserve the same amount of prize money.

These quibbles aside, Battle of the Sexes is entertaining and fast-moving for its 121 minutes.  However, it attempts too many different things, which lessens the impact of any one of them.  Is it a Billie Jean King biopic?  A coming out story?  An underdog sports movie?   There’s at least a small problem when the most interesting characters are the supporting ones.  Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue) and Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) seem like more fully-realized characters than the leads.  I wanted to see more of them.

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