Battle of the Sexes not only takes place in the 1970s but feels very much like it was filmed in the 1970s. The movie relies on slow zooms and wide shots, portraying the era’s vintage color and velvety upholstery in every frame. No detail is overlooked, no funky hairdo or retro outfit forgotten, fully capturing its time and era with full force.
This ability to capture the look and feel of the 1970s is the best part of Battle of the Sexes, but like many films and TV shows of that time, it also can feel slow and rigid. The movie spends a great deal of time worldbuilding, setting up the pieces to why and how the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) went down. We learn all the details about King’s personal life, her quarrel with tennis powerholder Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), her inner turmoil when a romance sprouts between her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) that conflicts with her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell), and her relentless pursuit of women’s equality, on-court and off. The same focus is given to Riggs, as we learn about his rocky marriage and strained relationship with his oldest son, although Riggs is still definitely painted as the attention-seeking manchild he really was.
This is good and all but frankly takes too long, with characters staying off-screen for enough time that we completely forget about them. When we finally get to the actual tennis match, it feels incredibly underwhelming. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris rely on an overhead shot for the entire match, which does make it feel as if you were actually watching it on TV with the rest of the world. But the distanced shot naturally makes the action feel distanced, like there are no actual stakes or pressure here, that this match is meaningless. And then it just ends, an entire film’s worth of buildup that amounts to little return.
If I had to guess, the reason the overhead shot was taken was because Carrell and Stone weren’t good enough tennis players to accurately make the action come to life from a close-up, so the film chose an overhead shot and used stunt doubles, with Carrell and Stone occasionally doing some sort of reaction shot after a major point is scored. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems like a reasonable explanation. It could also be because the match itself wasn’t as important as the discussion about the match and gender inequality in sports and beyond and that the directors were trying to reflect that. Still, if we’re to view this moment as a major, personal triumph for King, at least put some oomph into what you’re serving us.
However, where the movie faults in actual depictions of athleticism, it excels marvelously in its depiction of the forbidden love triangle between King, her husband and her hairdresser. These are the most rewarding scenes of the film, particularly the sequence where Marilyn is riding in an elevator with Larry at their hotel in Los Angeles. Its fraught with tension, and reveals just how many battles Billie Jean was fighting at the time. Another great moment is when Larry confronts Marilyn outside a hotel. We can guess that if Billie Jean had been sleeping with another man, Larry would threaten violence or even get into an altercation. But Marilyn is a woman and Larry is the husband of a high profile celebrity, he can’t get away with physical intimidation, threats or violence with her. So he uses his next best weapon: talking down to her, making her seem less than equal to him, that her romance with Billie Jean is just a phase and she’s nothing more than an experience. Marilyn holds her ground and has none of it, but Larry confesses that he and Marilyn will always be second-best to Billie Jean’s true love, tennis, with Marilyn looking like she silently agrees. It’s a powerful moment and one of the best depictions of the struggles of LGBTQ romance on-screen in quite some time, how with millions of viewers at home watching her every move, Billie Jean could not be herself.
It’s a good movie and an important one but falls just a bit short because of its slow-paced nature and inability to make the actual Battle of the Sexes match seem more exciting. Maybe that’s the point, though, that all sporting events and battles have weeks and weeks of buildup but are ultimately over in a few hours, never as satisfying as those initial moments of anticipation. Battle of the Sexes isn’t as satisfying as one would have hoped, but it still serves as an illuminating look into a moment in history and a struggle that is still being fought today.