"Sexes" takes on the themes of the ongoing struggle for gender equality in the United States.
by Steve Pulaski
In the 1970s, tennis player Billie Jean King was in her prime, with several championships under her belt and a commanding hold on competitors of equal or more talent. Among countless accomplishments in her life, one of the most major is how she came to stun the disproportionately male tennis-world into silence by participating in what was known as the "Battle of the Sexes." The match's concept was every bit of a tennis match with the awe and trash-talk of your average wrestling match, as King and former tennis superstar Bobby Riggs came together to square off on the court.
Rather than making it a match about both of their respective talents and prowess, Riggs made it a display of vanity and a quest to prove his, and men's, superiority in tennis and life in general. His loud-mouth displays, proudly proclaiming the title of "male chauvinist," infuriated women, consequently making the game just as much about "men vs. women" as it already was about maintaining status in the game.
This is a story that should've already got the theatrical treatment, but without appropriate context that paints pictures from the past that don't look that much different in the present, the social relevance of the story might've been sacrificed in favor of making yet another predictable sports drama. Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton - the husband and wife's third film following Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks - Battle of the Sexes is a crowd-pleasing triumph, deceptive in its understated look at gender equality and a forbidden relationship while also committing to being an exciting sports movie for good measure.
King is played by Oscar-winner Emma Stone, and at this point, it's getting a bit redundant to say, yet again, how great she is in a starring role. Similar to Jennifer Lawrence, at only 28 (Lawrence is a year younger), Stone has solidified herself as one of the most talented actresses working today, but another affirmation of her strengths is nothing to complain about. She plays King with a sweet, sincere blend of determination and social anxiousness, avoiding the spotlight whenever she can and trying her best to remain composed when she begins a relationship with a California hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) despite already being married.
Riggs is played by Steve Carell, another actor of great conviction, who we've seen play a broad spectrum of roles that are both likable and downright contemptible. It isn't hard to place his cocky, if talented, gambling addict character in this film, for Riggs represents damn-near everything that's wrong with the brazenly confident, masculine man that elevates himself by demeaning women at every turn. Riggs might be a tennis player, but he approaches the game and the surrounding spectacle that comes with the "Battle of the Sexes" with the same kind of boldness as if he were a football player or a scene-stealing wrestler. Almost needless to say as well, but Carell does a fine job at getting us to hate him but also admire his performance.
A barrage of supporting performances come in the form of Sarah Silverman playing Gladys Heldman, the founder of the The Virginia Slims Circuit, the cigarette-sponsored all-women's tennis division to which King and her fellow players belong, and Bill Pullman as retired tennis champion-turned-sexist-announcer Jack Kramer. Kramer was originally chosen to announce the King vs. Riggs match, but was forced to pull out when King refused him and the negative, shortchanging remarks he consistently brought with him when announcing women's tennis matches. Sprinkled in are great moments by Jessica McNamee, playing tennis champion Margaret Court, and Alan Cumming, as King's flamboyant clothing designer, tasked with adding some flavor to the usually droll, pearly white tennis dresses.
But just as eye-catching as the film's solid performances and 1970s-centric aesthetics (playing different but familiar beats to American Made's take on the decade, also released this weekend) are the themes of the ongoing struggle for gender equality in the United States. Passive-aggressive remarks from men to women are as commonplace as any dialog-exchange throughout the film, and caught in the middle of it is King, someone who is trying to represent herself in the sport she loves all while trying to fight for fairness for women in the sport and across the country. One of the circumstances that resulted in King being kicked out of the United States Tennis Association was her belief that female competitors deserve as much compensation/prize-money as their male counterparts. Is that really such an unimaginable circumstance forty years later?
For the first hour, Faris and Dayton do a commendable job at casting the relationship between King and Marilyn in a sensitive but romantic light that favors the passion the two have rather than conveying the sensational aspects. The second-half of the film is far more motivated by the looming "battle," and as much as it relies on familiar suspense tactics that are routine in this genre, I'd be lying if I said it doesn't carry its own weight as well. It's King, Stone's portrayal of her, and the unexpected focus on her personal life where things really shine in Battle of the Sexes.
Apparently, at the end of it all, the outcome of the famous 1973 match flustered Riggs so much that he went on to isolate himself in his hotel-room for several hours after the event. Now that's another movie I'd like to see.
Steve's Grade: B