Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

You want Billie to win, but you hate to see Bobby actually lose.

I’m not a fan of sports, and I have feelings about biopics – yet ironically, I do love me a good sports biopic. Perhaps it’s the inside baseball (sometimes literally), watching the behind-the-scenes melodrama play out gives the final match action a layer of stakes not apparent to the non-sports-fan. But then, shouldn’t I be into pro wrestling?

Battle of the Sexes is the true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). It’s also the story of a woman discovering her sexuality in a time and place that could cost her her professional and personal lives, and the reaction of the privileged white male establishment to the “threat” of women demanding recognition and equal pay. So… ancient history it ain’t.

Carrell Charisma

I know nothing of Bobby Riggs from real life, but his depiction here at least is the more interesting character – when juxtaposed against the truly misogynistic villains in this story, Riggs’ antagonism seems mostly performative, the only man who doesn’t believe his own “women’s place” talk (neither does Billy Jean King – the two apparently remained friends for years after) – right down to the shot of the two players leaving the court after their climactic match. Both face challenges in their professional and personal lives – but while Billie’s battles are important in broader historical and cultural sense (and the pressures upon her immense and unfair), Carrell’s Riggs’s feel compelling because they’re more personal, a has-been fighting for relevance, purpose, even meaning. You want Billie to win, but you hate to see Bobby actually lose.

There’s plenty of charm to go around in Battle of the Sexes. Sarah Silverman‘s ass-kickingly charming publicist. Alan Cummings‘s fairy godmother-type best friend, quietly supporting Billie’s self-discovery and her navigation of the complex array of its co-requisite challenges. (And isn’t her husband, and their relationship, fantastically and inspiringly mature?)

Blue is the Warmest Colour

As a period piece, Linus Sandgren‘s beautiful cinematography positions the characters in architecture and lighting which portray the loneliness and claustrophobia of the times, politics and relationships, both personal and professional. The palette is underlit yet rich: the screen is bluest when love is discovered and when hearts are broken; it’s dotted with yellow lights after the last words are spoken, still hanging in the air, and beginning to set in.

Further Viewing

Battle of the Sexes also employs some interesting approaches in its portrayal of Billie Jean’s sexual awakening. In this Battle of the Sexes episode of Anatomy of a Scene, filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris discuss the use of ASMR, or “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response”, to create intimacy in the dialogue and sound design of this scene (via The New York Times):

Slate looks at how Battle of the Sexes, along with fellow historical sports film I, Tonya (2017), manage to get their sports to look right: