Battle of the Sexes



22 September 2017| No Comments on Battle of the Sexes     by Sean Chavel



Some people might stay away thinking it’s only a tennis fan’s only movie. Humongous mistake. Battle of the Sexes is about the 1973 famed exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) that got turned into a circus act – male chauvinism must win because men are better at everything, women crack under pressure when it comes to anything, men are more exciting at sports than women – and the whole PR stunt of it all makes an intriguing story. The film goes deeper. It’s got a whole agenda on cracking down on the entire sexual inequality quotient of the era. Things are messed up in Trump-elect 2018, but you watch this movie and you realize we are going in a positive direction in getting a few things done right.

The head of the Tennis Association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), has put together his resources for an upcoming tournament to pay off the women’s champion a measly $1,500 while the men’s champion will get $12,000. That’s the catalyst for the women to drop out and start their own league, which they all pull off successfully. They travel, they promote, they do signings, they practice, they play, they pull in their own crowds. In a way though, they need a Bobby Riggs to shake things up.

Billie Jean King is too offended by Bobby Rigg’s buffoonery. By 1973, Riggs is a 56-year old former champion with a gambling problem – and an ego problem – and to purge his debt he needs to return to tennis and go big. He comes up with the idea of battle of the sexes warfare on the courts. He’s got the connections to raise big sponsoring money, and he promises a female competitor $35,000. He’s so damn good with boosting publicity that he later can get Billie Jean King to commit to a $100,000 purse.

On the publicity tour, Riggs goes into full chauvinist mode which mirrors the anthropology of the American male psyche. Men want to see Riggs slay King on the court, so that in a symbolic way men across the nation can say it’s another reason women need to go back to their rightful place – the kitchen. Bobby treats his chauvinistic words on the publicity tour as an attention-grabber. He knows his words inflict damage even though he offsets it in his jaunty humorous way. He voices all his insults as a hoot, with a puckish wink that he actually respects any woman who is willing to go up against him. What he doesn’t see is that more often than not his words are taken at face value. The movie’s genius is getting us to love Bobby Riggs for his scallywag charm, as long as you don’t take everything he says seriously (even though the national male psyche bought into chauvinistic fantasy).

After several films demonstrating both dramatic and comic lift, it’s about time we regard Carell is one of the great actors of today. The more he hams it up, the more he actually reflects the common American alpha male who puts on a masquerade to come off superior. His Bobby Riggs is a character living a perpetual me-first stunt. It’s only because of his character that Billie Jean King has a shot at big money.

Battle-of-the-Sexes_2017 Emma-Stone_Underrated-MasterpieceThat leads me to gush praise for the radiant intelligence and physical grace of Emma Stone. She is always a popular actress for her cuteness and adorability factor, but here she has to transform here, into an ambiguous persona. She is married to a man who supports her, and yet the movie from the get-go lets us see her affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough, luminous in her own right). The hairdresser, Marilyn, is not a celebrity of any kind but as a muse, she’s special. She’s a lover who gets Billie Jean King to open up, but they only go so far together for the tennis star is vexed with guilt. If the lesbian labeling gets out into the media, it will instantly ruin a tennis career.

“Battle of the Sexes” is one of the great sports movies and also as fine a deconstruction of sexual politics of the Baby Boomer era as there has ever been. The film’s directors are Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris whose popular “Little Miss Sunshine” is fairly entertaining but no favorite of mine – and more shallow than it would like to admit (what’s with so many scenes of grandpa running around  with a porn magazine in hand?). I think “Battle of the Sexes” is a masterpiece, an unexpected one, since it came from them. I also appear to be on the minority in thinking so highly of it however. In addition to smarts, entertainment value, the thought-provoking quotient, it also brings the whole flavor of the 1970’s back to life. How could a movie this perfect not be a smash? Is it because it doesn’t offer Emma Stone and Steve Carell in conventional cookie-cutter roles and because they have transformed from the inside-out, it scares prospective audiences?

“Battle of the Sexes” was one of only three movies I gave 5-stars to in 2017, “Detroit” and “The Florida Project” being the other two.

121 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousins: “9 to 5” (1980); When Billie Beat Bobby” (2001); “Bend it Like Beckham” (2003); “Wimbledon” (2004).

Battle-of-the-Sexes_2018 _Underrated-Masterpiece

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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