Battle Of The Sexes
The early seventies were a very unusual time to be alive. Society was in transition from the politically turbulent sixties to a period of personal aggrandizement. The youthful distrust spawned from dissent over the war in Vietnam would become the jingoistic pride surrounding the Bicentennial. The latest major biopic from Hollywood returns its audience back to the year 1973 when a popular culture milestone was being formed. Feminism and equality for women came on heels of the Civil Rights moment that was determined to address moral disgraces that permitted this country from its birth. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ depicts one of the most popular tennis matches in history, the highly publicized match between two of the sport’s leading contenders, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). The usual caveat applicable to most cinematic endeavors depict icing real people in historically documented situations or events there was a liberal use of dramatic license taken. One use was downplaying a romantic relationship between Ms. King and another woman. Allowances should be considered since during the time depicted same gender relationships were rarely made public. This may have tinged the private moments by diminishing the veracity, but it did reflect how the public would have perceived the actions. Some may justify diminishing their appraisal of the film as a result but that is an insult to the tightly crafted screenplay, stylistic direction and amazing performances by the cast, particularly the leads.
Tennis, like most sports in the seventies, was held to a strictly enforced segregation with the version featuring men consider the legitimate version and its female counterpart little more than a concession for women. The famous grudge match was ignited when promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) announces a tennis tournament where the grand prize for men was eight times larger than the same spot in the women’s division. Infuriated, top rank women’s player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone ) and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), founder of World Tennis magazine, publicly call him out for this egregious insult to women. Adding a financial justification for their grievance was the fact that the ticket sales were equal. The women announce that they are prepared to start their own tournament, potentially eroding half of Kramer’s profits. He tosses gasoline on the fire, doubling down on the insult by insisting the inferiority of women’s tennis. His response was overly harmful to the careers of most women tennis players. Kramer announces that any woman who participates in the alternate event would be permanently stripped of their membership to the Lawn Tennis Association. The TLA controls the clear majority of tennis defining the regulations and certifying players, couches and venues. Expulsion would isolate the player preventing them from participating in any approved matches. This action would end their careers.
Some tours were sponsored by products with a strong female demographic offering some glimmer of hope. When Ms. Heldman wins a substantial prize in a tournament sponsored by Virginia Slim cigarettes it bolstered the legitimacy of Women’s tennis as financially on par with the men. During this time Ms. King did what was considered a controversial act in her personal life. By having an affair with her hairdresser, placing her marriage to tennis pro, Larry King (Austin Stowell) in trouble, although it would continue for a number of years. Mr. King was instrumental in making women’s tennis a success using his position as CEO of Philip Morris, parent company of Virginia Slims to help secure the financial backing of the tournament. Mr. Riggs was also experiencing marital problems with his wife, Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue), a very wealthy woman with family money. Riggs was addicted to gambling which had become such a source of contention that Priscilla was angry even when Riggs won. This was demonstrated when he won a bet that yielded a Rolls Royce he won in a tennis bet. The combination of inflated ego, male chauvinism and compulsion to win lead him to the idea of challenging the top woman player to a match. Even at his age, 55, considerably older than the late twenties most top ranked women, he boasted he would easily win. Noe side note, Ms. Stone and Mr. Carell have the same difference in age. King initially declined but Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), a recent victor in a match against King accepts and is readily beaten. To save the reputation of women’s tennis King finally accepted the boastful challenge.
The media soon turned the upcoming match into a public spectacle dominating television newspaper and magazine content. Long before the appearance of the internet this event rapidly dominated the news. Riggs was so certain of the inferiority of women that he openly relaxes as the day of the match approaches. King, on the other hand, was a consummate professional and exceptionally devoted to a cause. She diligently trained to ensure being in her top physical shape. The match began at a slow pace but as it continued King’s preparation, inherent talent and stalwart determination won out resulting in s humiliating defeat for Riggs. The victory extended beyond one match or even the s=port of tennis, it was a blow for women’s equality and one of the first major cracks in the glass ceiling. Unfortunately, there is still a major discrepancy with women earning just 79 cents for every dollar a man earns. That does justify the historical importance of this story.
As for the film itself it is a rare platform for performances that synergistically enhance each other. There is a trend for comedians to migrate to dramatic roles. Steve Carell began on a television sketch comedy show working his way up to the American version of ‘The Office’ using that to springboard to starring in major comedic hit movies. Recently he earned an Academy Award nomination for ‘Foxcatcher’ in the category, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. That was also portraying a biographical character demonstrating the man’s chameleonlike nature to assume the essence of his subject, not merely parodying him. Undoubtedly his years of training as a sketch comedian honed his considerable understanding of human nature. Under his intense focus it has made him into one of the great actors of his generation. His costar, Emma Stone also began her career in comedy. Starting with featured, supporting parts in quirky comedies like ‘Superbad’\and ‘The House Bunny’, Ms. Stone soon took center stage in her own humorous vehicles. She took home the coveted Oscar last year for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her wok in ‘La La Land’. Able to sing, dance and possessing a command of dramatic and humorous roles Ms. Stone is a beautiful young woman that embodies the term, multitalented. Together these actors own the film portraying a pair of diametrically opposite people that have one aspect in common, a love of the sport, tennis.