As I write this, Harvey Weinstein is out at the company that bears his name – at least it bears that name momentarily, though that will likely change. In the past year Fox News lost its founder and its marquee mouth, both because of sexual abuse accusations, and the company’s paid out millions for allowing a culture of abuse to exist for years. Bill Cosby’s lawyers managed a hung jury last year, but he’ll likely be tried again. We had the sadly well-named Anthony Weiner receive the maximum sentence for showing off his hot dog. On the other hand, we learned last year that a blatant confession of sexually-abusive behavior was not a disqualifying factor for becoming president. These are but the logical end of the culture of paternalism that holds men to be superior to women. The examples above thought they could do what they liked because they were males, and throughout history that has been the case. It’s a continuing battle to progress past the stereotypes that society has placed on gender, race, and orientation, though there have been victories.
Battle of the Sexes dissects one of those early victories. When Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, ups the prize money for the men in its events to ten thousand dollars but leaves the women’s prize at fifteen hundred, the women walk out. Led by tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the women form the Women’s Tennis Association and set up a tour. It’s hard going at first, with the players having to do everything, until Heldman arranges a sponsorship deal with Virginia Slims.
Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) was a former number one ranked player who’d won Wimbledon and the US Open decades earlier. By the early 1970s, he was retired from the sport and working for his father-in-law. However, Riggs was a compulsive gambler and tennis hustler, and with the rise of the WTA he saw the chance cash in. He’d play the male chauvinist pig who would put the women back in their pace by showing that, at 55 years old, he could beat a woman in her prime.
The script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Everest) does a wonderful job capturing the era. It helps that King served as a technical advisor to the production. Each principle has their challenges. Bobby’s behavior causes massive strain on his wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) and his adult son from a prior marriage, Larry (Lewis Pullman). Caught up in the establishment of the WTA, Billie Jean’s away from her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), for extended time. It allows her to discover her sexuality with a free-spirit hair stylist, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), but she must keep the relationship secret.
The acting is exquisite, though in different ways. Carrell looks like Riggs, and he plays him as a deeply-flawed but in some ways endearing man. (In real life, Riggs and King stayed friends until Bobby’s death from prostate cancer in 1995.) On the other side, Stone doesn’t look like King, but she capture’s King’s physicality and spirit so perfectly that you believe she’s King. Interesting trivia: Carrell and Stone are each one year younger than Riggs and King when they met.
The supporting actors are like a field of diamonds, each shining brightly in turn, though it’s an inward fire that light them. Special kudos to Lewis Pullman, who communicates the pain that the irresponsible Bobby causes his son, even as Larry wants to love him. Alan Cumming has a pivotal role as Ted Tinling, the openly gay fashion designer who dressed most women tennis champions from the ‘50s through into the ‘80s. Tinling could be the subject of his own movie, since he was a champion tennis player himself, then after his death it came out he’d been an Allied spy during WWII. It likely helps that many of the cast have worked together before. Stone performed with Carrell in Crazy Stupid Love, with Riseborough in Birdman, and did “Cabaret” on Broadway with Cumming. The closest connection, though, would be Bill and Lewis Pullman, who are father and son.
Another connection is the directing team of Valarie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who’d directed Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine. (They’re also responsible for the delightful movie from 2012, Ruby Sparks.) They direct with a feather-weight touch, though it can hit you like an emotional sledgehammer. For instance, a scene at a dance club where Billie Jean and Marilyn first feel their attraction exhibits nothing overt, but it’s crystal clear what they’re feeling. It does help that the scene’s played to the song “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells.
The climax, of course, is the historic match between King and Riggs, played at the Houston Astrodome in front of an audience of over 30,000 and a world-wide television audience of 90 million. It remains the largest audience ever for a tennis match. Faris and Dayton had access to all the videotape of the match, and they recreate it in such a thrilling way that you find yourself watching it as if it were happening at that moment.
King helped put women’s tennis on par with men’s, where it has remained since. It also created parity in purses at matches. But outside of tennis and despite attempts to remedy it, pay for women still lags behind men, and along with it the acceptance of women as just as valuable as men. Virginia Slims used the song, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” in their ads at the time of the Battle of the Sexes. Today, with paternalism still strong and leading to the abuses detailed in the first paragraph, it’s clear there’s still a long, long way to go.