Billie Jean King (an unrecognizable Emma Stone) might be queen of the tennis court, but her real battle is fought without a racket against manager, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). “The men are simply more exciting to watch,” states Kramer while discussing the unequal gender pay ethics forcing Jean to jump ship to an independent tour. Her personal life however has other plans when an affair with hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) raises an epiphany of her orientation. Meanwhile gambling addict, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) uses his overly heightened personality as a marking circus to secure a one on one match with King despite being 55 and on the verge of a divorce.
Deceivingly familiar at first glance, Battle of the Sexes has two distinctions that separates it from most gender clashing stories: it adds flawed and uncertain humanity on both sides while intertwining how athletes were forced to hide their personal lives for the sake of relevance and sponsorship. Not every male is Jack Kramer and even one of Jean’s colleagues grows animus towards her when the closet door is left unsupervised showing how prejudice can come from anywhere. Somehow the marketing is as much a showdown as the final game throwing many jabs and punches on camera and behind closed doors. If anything, the romance could’ve been a little more developed outside the hotel nightlife after a strong line delivered from Jean’s husband/manager, Larry (Austin Stowell), “We’re just the sideshow. Her real love is tennis. If you get between her and that…” It’s subtly hinted at many times, but never comes to full fruition.
Stone is unrecognizable behind the glasses, brownish black hair, competitive nature and relaxed freedom easily topping her role in La La Land. Particularly when the pressures of her career, society and new identity fall into a melting pot ready to burst when things go wrong. Carell makes Riggs an incredibly likable jerk for all his misogynistic nature. It’s never clear whether it’s intentional or a marketing strategy to give King her chance to prove herself. But together, they’re a can of worms ready to jump at each others necks with snarks and comebacks for better or worse. Everyone else is a blast for how little screen time they’re given including the unexpected comedy stealer, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and Jean’s close friend, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming).
Battle of the Sexes will be one of the underappreciated gems of the year having come out near the same time as the heavily marketed Blade Runner 2049. But it’s witty, intense, funny, emotional, loyally biographical, has great characters and I can’t stop recommending it to any general audience in this day and age.
Pros: Emma Stone + Steve Carell, final match, build up, dual humanity, three-dimensional characters
Cons: unexplored romance