It is not at all unreasonable to think, in this era of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and constantly unfolding sexual assault and abuse scandals in the worlds of both politics and Hollywood, that the struggle for women’s rights in America has not really been advanced very far at all. Still rampant sexism and chauvinism certainly seems to have played at least some role in the presidential victory of political neophyte Donald Trump over the much more knowledgeable and qualified female candidate, Hillary Clinton. Now that’s he’s won, the Trump administration and a male dominated GOP Congress seem determined to push women’s empowerment issues back to the place they were prior to the 1950s, when women were demanded to be either subservient wives and homemakers or quiet, pliable sexual playthings. As the Harvey Weinstein scandal is encouraging more and more women to come out on a daily basis and share their stories of sexual assault and harassment, it appears apparent that women who have not suffered at least one incident of terror, humiliation and dehumanization at the hands of a powerful male are in the extreme minority.
It is for exactly these reasons that Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s new film Battle of the Sexes is such a revelation. The film tells the story of the famous 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which ended up being one of the defining moments on the long and winding road towards female equality. Women tennis players at the time were making a fraction of what the men were, and it was asserted that even the top female players could not physically compete with the men. Billie jean King, of course, easily defeated Riggs in three sets to make obvious the ridiculousness of the male superiority argument. Faris and Dayton, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, manage to perfectly capture the intensely high stakes for all the participants, but also the wild, circus-like atmosphere that surrounded the event, while at the same time crafting deeply human, complex portraits of both King and Riggs. The film also deals very sensitively with Billie Jean King’s awakening to her truth as a lesbian.
Battle of the Sexes shows it’s true genius in the casting. Both Emma Stone and Steve Carell give richly nuanced performances as King and Riggs respectively and could not have been better chosen for their parts. Stone and Carell never portray their characters as cardboard heroes or villains, but as real, fallible, “warts and all” humans. King comes off as a reluctant standard bearer for women’s rights, while Riggs is presented as more of a cartoon, tongue-in-cheek personification of chauvinism than an actual stalwart of the patriarchy. The supporting roles, as well, are cast to perfection, with Bill Pullman as the true villain of the film, Jack Kramer, and Sarah Silverman, as Virginia Slims tennis circuit organizer, Gladys Heldman, being particularly exciting to watch.
The film needs to be lauded, as well, for both it’s attention to period detail and realistically capturing the match and the historically charged atmosphere that lead up to it. In an article in USA Today, Billie Jean King says that the film is “99 percent accurate,” adding, “They certainly captured the essence.”
In these tumultuous times, when both minorities and women, as well as the LGBTQ community, seem to be losing vast acres of ground they have fought long, torturous decades to obtain, the need for films like Battle of the Sexes has never been greater. We obviously can use the vivid reminder of the historical struggles and costs. Brave women, such as Asia Argento and Rose McGowan, are coming out today to speak truth to power and demand that the trauma they faced at the hands of loathsome but powerful men be recognized and acknowledged. Such acts of courage, however, might still have been unthinkable had not Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in that silly tennis match more than 40 years ago.
[Featured Image by Vianney LeCaer/Invision/AP Images]