Even though I know absolutely nothing about tennis, this film was totally enjoyable to watch. Also incredibly frustrating at times. I’ll do my best to stay focused on the film and not stray into a total sociopolitical rant – however, I think the point of the film is not only to celebrate this amazing woman, but also to create and continue the gender conversation.
The film begins with Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) at the absolute height of her tennis career, and receiving a publicly broadcast phone call from Richard Nixon. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) watches the call on a TV in his office. Later, Billie Jean is at a dance where her manager, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), storms in and takes her to confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). Jack is offering laughably low prize money to women and largely trying to keep them out of an upcoming tennis tournament on the premise that “men are just more fun to watch.”
Billie Jean and Gladys decide to create their own tournament, and they gather a group of the nation’s best women players to sign contracts for one dollar apiece. Jack shows up at the signing and threatens to ban all of them from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association if they boycott his tournament by creating their own. Billie Jean calls his bluff and they move forward with their plan, which gets an unexpected blessing through the sponsorship of Virginia Slims cigarettes.
Meanwhile, Bobby is playing a low-key tennis match with his buddies, where the gambling stakes are anything but low-key. Bobby easily wins, earning a Rolls Royce through the bet, but realizes he can’t take it home as his wife believes he has given up gambling. His “friend” sends it over later anyway, with a driver and everything, and Bobby’s wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) kicks him out of the house.
The women are getting ready for the start of their tennis tour, and all go to a hair salon before holding press interviews. Billie Jean’s instant attraction to her hairdresser is undeniable, and Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) shows every indication that she shares the attraction. Marilyn visits the tour later on when they play in San Diego, and a night out at a club ends up back in Billie Jean’s hotel room. She visibly struggles with her attraction due to her marriage, but eventually can’t resist making love to Marilyn.
During the passionate night, Bobby finds the hotel she’s staying at and calls Billie Jean – challenging her to a tennis match for $100,000, which would be branded as the “male chauvinist pig versus the hairy-legged feminist.” Billie Jean knows Bobby has a penchant for gambling and likes to put on a show even more than he likes to play tennis, so she refuses. Bobby then challenges Billie Jean’s rival, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who actually accepts the terms of the match if she can beat Billie Jean during the next day of the tournament; which she does.
Billie Jean’s tennis game suffers as she has an internal conflict over her strong feelings for Marilyn and her respect for her husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell). When Larry goes to see Billie Jean at the hotel when they arrive in Los Angeles, he has an awkward encounter with Marilyn in the elevator going up to the room. It’s not hard for him to figure out what’s going on, and he warns Marilyn that they are both second-fiddle to Billie Jean’s love of tennis.
The tennis match between Bobby and Margaret is a disaster; later dubbed the “Mother’s Day Massacre” due to how handily Bobby swept Margaret. Billie Jean knows she has to play Bobby now to save face for women tennis players, and begins additional preparations on top of their strict tournament schedule. Bobby is delighted, and pulls a ton of media stunts to really play up the chauvinist persona, along with starting a vitamin pill regimen instead of hitting the court and practicing.
The night before the match, Billie Jean threatens to pull out when she finds out that Jack will be doing commentary. She points out that he would never give her fair credit for her playing abilities and would influence how the audience views her skills and how they stack up to Bobby’s. Jack finally relents and agrees to pass on the commentating job to someone else. On the day of the match, both Larry and Marilyn come to support Billie Jean. However, she’s in her tennis world now, and goes out to the arena alone.
Thank goodness Billie Jean King won the match against Bobby Riggs, otherwise who knows where women would be today. It may have been “just a tennis match,” but it helped validate women athletes and women’s abilities in general when matched up to men’s abilities.
One of my biggest impressions from the film was how many big names were cast. So much of the marketing I saw only highlighted Emma Stone and Steve Carell, and understandably so, but there were a lot of other faces I knew. The casting was really well done because, even though I recognized a lot of the actors from various other projects, each person settled into their role so naturally and acted so believably. There were some really cool cinematography shots, and the pace of the film – especially the editing of the tennis matches – was so smooth and watchable. The action was gently accelerated the whole film instead of stalling out anywhere, and this continuous build to the end of the story was helped along by the score.
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- The score wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was excellently executed. Nicholas Britell was the composer, who was nominated for the Best Original Score Academy Award for his beautiful score for Moonlight. I’ve seen several of his other films, and he’s one composer I plan to keep my eye on. This score for Battle of the Sexes had plenty of “inspirational movie” music elements to it – primarily in the chords chosen and the feelings they elicit – but how he communicated those was fairly unique.
- The instrumentation is what sets this score and this composer apart. He uses a lot of piano throughout, but the score stays fairly light through his stronger leaning on woodwinds and high percussion rather than brass and heavy drums. And he connects to the source music and the 1970s setting by extensive use of drum set and guitars. It really creates something fun to listen to and a score that isn’t taxing to listen to. With a story like this, I think it’s easy for the score to get dragged down under the weight of the expectation that it should be profound. Britell does an exceptional job of resisting that, and the score is able to stay light even at the fullest moments.
- There is a massive amount of energy contained in the music. This is so helpful to the film because it helps tie together the two lives we follow leading up to the big Billie Jean/Bobby match, and creates a big crescendo to the climax of the plot. String pads are used in nearly every cue, but other elements almost always contain a moving element. Some other strings on an ostinato, piano on a repeated pattern, drums and drum set on a driving rhythm, and winds on counter lines and flourishes. It’s an enormous amount of energy that propels us forward, but also creates a remarkable amount of tension. Again, it’s especially noticeable in the cues leading up to the end of the film, and it culminates in a beautifully written and triumphant “Victory” cue that still contains a lot of the same musical elements to tie it all together.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- Bobby’s extensive degradation of women was probably an act to some extent. I have no doubt that he was a misogynist of some degree, but his outwardly expressed views leading up to the two big tennis matches against the women were likely publicity stunts. A lot of the antics that the film highlighted were so over the top and utterly ridiculous – and considering the obvious framing of Bobby as a huge hustler – it’s hard to believe his real beliefs actually went that far. The real problem, which I think the film did a great job of expressing, was how outspoken he was. This then allowed other men to feel emboldened to more loudly and strongly spew their own hatred and prejudices.
- The inclusion of Marilyn was really important to show another side of Billie Jean King. She wasn’t just a tennis machine, and she wasn’t just a feminist working for equal rights and representation. She was also someone who struggled with her feelings for the people she loved in an era when it was unacceptable to be in a homosexual relationship. And, as the end of the film points out, fighting for LGBTQ rights became a large part of her life later on. The film may look at her relationship with Marilyn with rose-colored glasses (in reality, Marilyn later sued Billie Jean – it’s not like this is the first film to portray a relationship as more idealistic than it actually played out), but the inclusion helps to give a more rounded look at Billie Jean as a person and show that she had struggles relatable to a wider audience than those who watch tennis or enjoy sports rivalries. The moment Emma Stone shares with Alan Cumming’s character at the end when he reassures her that one day they will all be free to love anyone they want is really touching and beautiful.
- I really can’t believe that we’re still struggling with some of these same issues in our society more than 40 years after this match took place. It’s absolutely infuriating. I have a hard time articulating my feelings when this topic comes up, because there absolutely is sexist discrimination and systemic misogyny that still happens today. As a film composer, it’s a reality that I face all the time. Women are more underrepresented in the composer’s role than in any other film related job, even though I personally have a substantial network of women composers. And what’s so sad to see is how many men believe they are allies of women in their fight for equality and representation, but turn around and reinforce these systemic barriers without even realizing what they’re doing. If we really want this world to change, men have to work hand-in-hand with women to create a new seat at the table, where they can then create lasting, positive initiatives that result in social progress. Here’s a source that supports my representation claim, and also discusses some of the positive changes happening in Hollywood: variety.com
Emma Stone and Steve Carell gave compelling performances that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, even if I was sometimes left aghast and outraged. The cinematography and editing were well done, and every other department from costuming to production design did an excellent job creating a cohesive film based on a story so well documented and easy to measure against.
It’s definitely a fun film to watch, with some important social motivations for being told. And it’s a light, uplifting score to listen to as well! I think the next time I need a little boost of determination, I’ll play Britell’s score and channel Billie Jean King’s no-nonsense tennis attitude.