The Battle of the Sexes

Oct 2, 2017

Much more than tennis and much better than many other docudramas.

Battle of the Sexes

Grade: B+

Directors: Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshime), Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine)

Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire)

Cast: Emma Stone (La La Land), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

Rating: R

Runtime: 2 hr 1 min

by John DeSando

“You’ve come a long way, Baby.” Virginia Slims’ promo

Although it is difficult to determine just how far women’s rights and social equality have progressed in the last half century, the victory of Billie Jean King over Bobby Riggs in the 1973 tennis exhibition match was a spectacular publicity success for all movements where women fought male chauvinism on the court, in the courts, and in the home. Based on the real events, Battle of the Sexes is a successful film rendering of the battle for that equality.

Besides, it’s an entertaining docudrama. Emma Stone as King certifies herself as an actress of considerable range after her Oscar for the romantic La La Land. Steve Carell as Riggs is playful and cunning just like Riggs, who underestimated King’s skill and savvy.

The principals of this contest knew much more than money rode on its promotion, for chauvinists like Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) needed the lesson that women were worth the same money as male athletes. Besides, the world itself needed to change its attitude about the inferiority of women.

Acclaimed directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris faithfully and impressively recreate the ‘70’s with such jewels as a sound track featuring  Crimson and Clover and Rocket Man. The directors valiantly though sometimes abruptly cut between the two camps, frequently stressing King’s emerging gay interest in hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

While dramatizing this facet of the LGBT movement, the filmmakers allow the sequences involving the lovers to be at times too long and obvious. Yet, as I think of how difficult it is for gay athletes even today to be up front about their sexuality, I must commend the depiction in this film.

Although freedom of choice was undoubtedly a sub theme, the game afoot was tennis, and Riggs and King were clown and queen. It was great entertainment that this docudrama gets about perfectly right. And let’s thank the Williams sisters for carrying the torch into modern life with dignity.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at