Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

Looking back at the first half of 1973, it’s easy to see how much the world has changed in 44 years. Australia had just legislated equal pay for women. Philippines president Marcos officially became a dictator. The US Supreme Court overturned state bans on abortion. An unwinnable war, which had divided the US public for years, was finally coming to an end. The White House was mired in scandal with growing calls for the president’s impeachment. Oh, and American Indian Movement activists who were occupying tribal lands for 71 days surrendered to federal authorities. As the saying goes, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But something was seriously out of whack back then. Professional women’s tennis players were only being paid one-eighth as much as what the men were getting. I honestly don’t know what the wage gap is today, or even if a wage gap still exists, but I can’t imagine that it’s as disparate as it was back then. At the very least though, today, professional women’s tennis players can earn substantial income through endorsements, which is an avenue that wasn’t available to them 44 years ago.

Just as professional women’s tennis players, headed by women’s World #1 player Billie Jean King, were taking a stand for pay equity in their sport, along came former men’s World #1 player Bobby Riggs, who publicly mocked the women and even went so far as to issue a challenge to King to an exhibition match to settle the score, once and for all, whether women tennis players deserve to be paid as much as the men. That story is recreated in the film, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, starring Emma Stone (LA LA LAND; IRRATIONAL MAN) as King and Steve Carell (CAFÉ SOCIETY; THE BIG SHORT; FOXCATCHER) as Riggs.

What was Riggs’ game here? Was he really a sexist pig or was he an opportunist? Being 14 years old at the time, I probably saw him back then as the defender of male privilege. Certainly today and after seeing the film, I would say that he probably was 90 percent opportunist and 10 percent sexist. Here was a guy who was at the top of the sport when he was just 21 years old. Now, in 1973 at age 55, he was earning “chump change”, as he would probably call it, playing on the Senior Circuit. To supplement his income but more to support his gambling habit, he would play against actors, singers and retired sports stars, often handicapping himself by placing chairs or even sheep throughout his side of the court or holding something bulky in his other hand. He was a showman through and through. With King and her colleagues exiting the professional circuit to start their own association, Riggs saw the perfect opportunity to put both himself and tennis back in the spotlight.

At the time, I had thought that King took Riggs at his word but you can see throughout the film that she knew exactly what was going on. However, she also knew that she had to beat him if women’s tennis was going to be taken seriously by the men. King accepted all of Riggs’ showboating with a huge smile and she even dished the dirt right back at him, which he took in equal stride. The Battle of the Sexes was pure entertainment and the public lapped it up as over 30,000 filed into the Houston Astrodome to watch the game live — a number that’s still in the record books today — and an estimated 90 million people around the world watched the event on TV. (If you think White Male Privilege wasn’t institutionalised back then, you’re going to love watching and listening to Howard Cosell’s pre-game banter and play-by-play!)

As far as the film goes, Stone and Carell both do solid work, though the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE; THE FULL MONTY) doesn’t particularly challenge them. Funnywoman Sarah Silverman is delightful as women’s tennis promoter, Gladys Heldman, a character who would be very much at home in a Woody Allen movie. Also good is Alan Cumming (TV’s THE GOOD WIFE) as King’s and the other women’s not so in-the-closet former tennis player turned dress designer, Ted Tinling. He (Tinling) led an interesting life, one that is worthy of a movie treatment.

All in all, BATTLE OF THE SEXES is a thoroughly enjoyable film with a wonderful soundtrack that plays like a K-Tel “Hits of the Late ’60s & Early ’70s” compilation album. It probably won’t win any major awards but that shouldn’t stop you from going to see it. It might just make you realise how much and how little times have changed.

PS: I’m always amazed reading the Goofs section of the Internet Movie Database. I wonder how many times, or how carefully, do people have to watch a film in order to spot one? I’m happy to say that I noticed a goof while watching this film. It’s in the scene where King is riding an elevator in Los Angeles. Without looking at the IMDb listing because someone has already put it there, if you spot it, let me know!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, October 26th at 8:30 am HK time!

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