The tennis legend fought Bobby Riggs on the court and struggled with the times off of it.
Battle Of The Sexes (2017)
Directors: Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
By David-Elijah Nahmod
Though parts of “Battle of the Sexes” are humorous, the recent sports biopic tells a very serious tale: that of the epic 1973 tennis match between champions Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
King was, at the time, a closeted lesbian, a married woman struggling with her sexual identity while she trained for her match against Riggs. Riggs was a self-avowed sexist and all-around bad boy who adored being the center of attention. Rather than properly train for his match against King, Riggs chose instead to give wisecracking interviews to the press and to pose for nude photos.
Steve Carrell is quite good as Riggs, giving the film its humorous edge. When Carrell is onscreen the film moves at a delightfully fast pace and plays like a delicious screwball comedy.
But “Battle of the Sexes” is, first and foremost, Emma Stone’s film. Her scenes are far more serious in tone. Stone gives an Oscar-worthy performance as King.
As she tours the country with a newly formed women’s tennis league, King enters into a secret affair with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), her hair stylist. The attraction between the two women is intense. King cannot deny her feelings for Marilyn, even as she struggles and juggles her feelings for her loyal and loving husband (Austin Stowell), who figures out the truth.
The scenes between King and Marilyn serve as a reminder of things were for LGBT people a couple generations ago. Coming out was not an option. Being known as Queer was career suicide. The women are forced to meet in secret, often leaving their hotel rooms separately so as not to arouse suspicion. These sequences underscore how far we have to go in spite of all the gains that have been made.
The film’s most powerful line comes not from King or Riggs, but from out bisexual actor Alan Cumming, who plays Ted Tinling, King’s fashion designer. Ted is semi-out; he embraces King and assures her that one day Queers will be free to be themselves and love who they wish. It’s a chill-inducing moment.
Stone is mesmerizing as a woman who exudes confidence on the tennis court, if not in her personal life. Her hair, make-up and glasses—a perfect copy of the real King’s round eyewear—effectively recreate the young King of 45 years ago. Stone looks and sounds like her subject. She beautifully captures the wide array of emotions that King was no doubt feeling at the time.
In the years since her match with Riggs, Billie Jean King indeed came out, becoming both a feminist and a lesbian icon. “Battle of the Sexes” not only recreates her now-legendary tennis court battle against Riggs, it shows us how she became the woman she now is.
Sadly, “Battle of the Sexes” did not do well at the box office during its theatrical run. It’s now available on DVD and Blu Ray. We hope you’ll give it a chance.
David-Elijah Nahmod is a San Francisco-based writer whose eclectic career includes work for LGBTQ and Jewish publications as well as monster magazines. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidElijahN and read his monthly film-review column at PrizmNews.com.