Battle of the Sexes Features a ‘70s Tennis Duel, Sex, Gambling, and My Husband (Well, Sort Of)
Full disclosure: My husband Art has a tiny cameo in Battle of the Sexes, opening this Friday Sept. 22. Well, at least his backside does. His brief moment on the silver screen sees him playing a photographer who shoots Bobby Riggs (played gleefully by Steve Carell) for a magazine spread in the media frenzy leading up to his famous tennis match back in 1973 with the women’s champ Billie Jean King (portrayed excellently by Emma Stone).
I’m not gonna lie—Art, a real life photographer, was a little excited when the directors, the cool husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), asked him to come to the Fox lot and do his thing. He got to don some cheesy polyester '70s slacks and giant period sideburns while saying stuff like “Chin up. Great. That’s good.”
Alas, those utterances—along with any shots of his face—are somewhere on a cutting room floor. The only thing that made it to the screen was a second or so of him from behind as he hunches over his tripod, photographing Riggs lounging nude on a couch. Ah well. I guess Art will have to stick to his day job.
But honestly, that was my only disappointment with the film. Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining, fun, sometimes touching, and sometimes enlightening look at the world of tennis, the struggles of sexual identity, and the sexism of the time. It’s also got some great period music—Tommy James and The Shondells's “Crimson and Clover,” Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding,” and George Harrison’s “What is Life” to name a few.
The film tells the story of what happens when former Wimbledon champ Riggs, at age 55, challenges women’s tennis queen Billie Jean King, then 29, to an exhibition match—to “prove” that men are the superior sex.
“I have a great idea,” he says to her in the movie during a late night payphone call. “Male chauvinist pig versus hairy legged feminist! You’re still a feminist, right?"
“I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman," she replies dryly. "And by the way, I shave my legs.”
Eventually, though, Riggs convinces King to play (though the $100,000 prize money probably helps). A media circus ensues, which is exactly what Riggs wants—mega-attention, along with a potential cash infusion to support a bad gambling habit. The spectacle includes King being carried onto the court in a feathered “throne" by scantily clad men and Riggs presenting her with a giant sucker from his sponsor, Sugar Daddy. King pays him back with a squealing (chauvinist?) pig.
The crowd laps it up. And so did 50 million TV viewers when it happened in real life. And as history can attest, King made Riggs sweat, winning (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) and bringing newfound attention to women’s tennis.
But the drama in this film isn’t all on the court. Interwoven into this sports saga are a couple of intriguing subplots. There’s the rocky marriage of Riggs and his well-heeled wife Patricia (played by a knock-out Elizabeth Shue giving off major Sharon Tate vibes), but the more prominent side story is how the then-married King has a secret love affair with her female hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (portrayed oh-so-sensuously by Andrea Riseborough).
Take a closer look at some of the performances I loved in this film.
Stone could very well get awards nominations for her portrayal of the famed athlete King. From her hesitations about taking on the flashy hustler Riggs, to her bold activism against sexism and calls for equal pay for women, to her awkward, sometimes heartbreaking scenes with her loyal husband Larry (Austin Stowell) and especially the nervous, tension-filled moments with her new female lover, she makes it all feel, well, real.
Spouting such sexist remarks such as “I love women—in the bedroom and in the kitchen,” Carell captures the bravado of the macho tennis player Riggs, a gambling addict who even made bets with his shrink. It’s hard to tell how much Riggs really believed all the sexist stuff he espoused versus how much of a showman he was—he seemed to know that controversial comments would only make for fiercer competition and better TV (It all feels so familiar in the era of Trump).
But Carell, who seems to have a blast, somehow manages to make Riggs more sympathetic than you might think possible. We kind of feel sorry for him in his desperation to be relevant again and hang onto his troubled marriage. Note: He and Priscilla not only end up staying together, but they even renew their vows.
Silverman looks amazing as Gladys Heldman, King’s take-no-crap manager and business partner. Her brunette flip, oversize glasses, and black and white plaid maxidress compete with a big red bow, are killer—the era suits her.
In the film, her character helps King boycott a tournament headed by Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman), executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals, who refuses to pay women players equal to men. “The men have families to support” Kramer feebly argues in a poor attempt to justify the massive salary difference. When King and Heldman ultimately break the news that they’re starting their own tennis association for women only, he smirks and says, “We’ll sure miss your pretty faces.” Hiss.
With her flowing hair and free spirit, Riseborough oozes sexual energy as King’s lover Marilyn Barnett. When they meet, King is in Barnett’s salon chair getting a hair cut, and you can feel the erotic tension as the camera comes in close, magnifying the intimacy between the two women. “What do you want?” purs Barnett. You can almost smell the lavender scent Barnett has on her wrists, which she tells King is to “relax the customers.”
Later, in a hotel bedroom when King reveals that she's married, Barnett cooly replies. “That’s ok. I’ve got a boyfriend. Sort of.” It’s a loose, fun and slightly manipulative performance that is a joy to watch.
Ok, I have to admit it: I’m a longtime fan of Shue's. From Adventures in Babysitting to Cocktail, Leaving Las Vegas and beyond, I always find Shue so appealing and likeable, and this role (while not meaty) is no exception. Shue plays Riggs's beautiful, wealthy, and über patient wife Priscilla, who eventually tires of supporting Riggs's gambling habit and locks him out of the house.
Meanwhile, I was left coveting Priscilla's Mad Men pool party outfits—emerald green and tangerine jumpsuits, a silky lavender number, and an all white ensemble complete with bag and shoes—her hair always expertly coiffed in a long blonde flip. I wanted more scenes with her!
And So Many Others
There are also other noteworthy performances: Jessica McNamee as crisp as Australian tennis pro Margaret Court, who lost a match against Riggs before King played him; Fred Armisen as Riggs’s smarmy vitamin pusher; and Alan Cumming as the funny and sincere Ted Tinling, the women’s tennis team’s fashion designer and the only person who seems to understand what King is going through.
After the big match, there’s a moment when King is alone with Tinling after crying in the locker room, and she is hesitant to go back out into the crazed, cheering crowd, where both her husband and lover are waiting to congratulate her. Tinling gives her a pep talk. “The dancing can’t start without you” he coaxes. “Someday we will be able to be who we are and love who we love. But now it’s time to join the dance.”