September 23, 2017

Movie review: “Battle of the Sexes”

By Carl Kozlowski *
Official movie poster for “Battle of the Sexes” / Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures 
Official movie poster for “Battle of the Sexes” / Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

The new movie “Battle of the Sexes” focuses on the famous 1972 showdown between women’s tennis champ Billie Jean King and former mens’ tennis champion Bobby Riggs. It’s a zippy and entertaining slice of history that features great performances by Emma Stone and Steve Carell, but it also carries some major baggage for Catholic viewers due to its depiction of King’s off-court battles with her sexual orientation.

“Battle” leads off with Billie Jean King (Stone) shown as the unstoppable womens’ tennis champion of the world. However, she and her attorney Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are mad that she is paid far less than the male champions and challenge the pro tennis association leaders to pay equally. When they laugh, King breaks off and forms her own women’s tennis association.

Throughout, the issue of whether she’s a feminist comes up, and King replies her concern is almost solely on equal financial treatment for women athletes. As she nears her women’s association announcement, she meets a hairstylist named Marilyn (Riseborough), who is very seductive as she cuts King’s hair in an extended, sensuously filmed sequence.

Soon, Marilyn is invited on the tour as the women’s hairstylist since they rely on media appearances, and King and Marilyn begin a lesbian affair. The make out scenes are surprisingly intense for a PG-13 movie, stronger than most straight couples are portrayed in such situations, and they are shown embarking on this flirtatiously and happily at first.

However, King is torn about the effect on her husband since her feelings have been closeted within a straight marriage. When her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) finds out, he is torn between his emotional devastation and his wish to help her succeed in her cause above all else.

Meanwhile, former mens’ tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Carell), who is 55 while King is 29, challenges a female champ to play him for a large monetary prize in the hopes of showing that males are superior and colorfully rebuke the burgeoning feminist movement. When he defeats one female champ, he challenges King for a $100,000 winner take all prize that she can’t refuse after turning him down for the initial match.

Riggs’ inveterate and humorously portrayed gambling addiction impacts his marriage, and he is contrasted training humorously with King’s serious efforts. Their clashing styles capture the nation’s attention and make for an entertaining series of confrontations.

“Battle” is portraying the real-life affair that King engaged in at the time, but it places a strongly positive viewpoint on the lesbian relationship overall. It impressively adds depth by showing the emotional damage wrought on Larry and the way that Riggs’ gambling affects his own life, and there are some positive elements of forgiveness shown by Larry and reconciliation shown in Riggs’ marriage.

Stone delivers a richly layered performance, mixing strong determination for her cause with her emotional confusion in her personal life while also displaying occasionally strong wit in bantering with Riggs. Carell has a distinctly smaller role for the first half, and brings a healthy dose of colorful humor to the movie before showing an impressive emotional depth as events turn against Riggs later.

Aside from the movie’s focus on the lesbian relationship, this is a very entertaining movie, and it’s a shame that the filmmakers did not choose to focus on the tennis matches and battle of principles more than the affair. There is definitely a lot to talk about here regarding relationships and marriage, though, and that’s more than most movies offer couples these days.

Overall, “Battle” is an extremely well-made movie artistically and its agenda will likely help it become a contender for critics’ honors and the Oscars at the end of the year. But its extremely positive portrayal of homosexuality detracts from its strengths for Catholic viewers, and anyone who sees it should take note that its foreplay scenes are very intense for the rating.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.