‘BATTLE OF THE SEXES’: A tale of equality, respect and “Rocket Man” for the Trump era

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Emma Stone and Steve Carell in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Women’s equality is a major sticking point in politics these days. You probably noticed this back in January when many took to protest in the streets in the Women’s March. Needless to say, our struggle hasn’t gone away – it’s only manifested into something larger.

Legendary tennis champion Billie Jean King has been fighting on behalf of equality during her tireless, decades-long struggle – something BATTLE OF THE SEXES highlights. It’s the primary reason why King (portrayed in the film by Oscar-winner Emma Stone) broke off from the traditional path to form her own league, one that fought for the right to be paid just as much as the men’s. One person who set out to challenge the feminist pioneer was chauvinist, loudmouth tennis champ Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carell).

During a tender scene in the car between Stone and Andrea Riseborough, who plays King’s hairdresser girlfriend Marilyn Barnett, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s film called upon a song by King’s old pal Elton John – one that’s making headlines today. “Rocket Man” was the precise sweet sound to complement the mood of the cinematic moment. At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, King shared it made her happy because it…

…is my brother’s favorite. I thought it really fit the scene with the car going down PCH.

One such businessman-turned-TV-personality-turned-politician – someone who’s been widely-criticized for representing male chauvinism – has started using the nickname “Rocket Man” for Kim Jong-Un.

Through a confluence of events, the two have now become intertwined with both the release of this film on Friday and today’s speech by President Trump at the United Nations.

King’s friendship with John dates back to right before she played the record-breaking match against Riggs in 1973.

I met Elton two weeks before I played Bobby Riggs in Los Angeles. We hit it off. We were very shy and he kept looking across the room. Finally, his manager came over and he said, ‘Come with me.’ So we met each other and were off and running. In ’74, he came to watch me play tennis with the Philadelphia Freedoms. We were in the car, going to a concert and he says, ‘I wanna write a song for you.’ And I go, ‘What?’ He said, ‘What are we gonna call it?’ I go, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Wanna call it ‘Philadelphia Freedom?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ It became number one – it crossed over into R&B, which made him sooo happy.

It actually came as a bit of a surprise that BATTLE OF THE SEXES tested with audiences’ 15 points higher right after Trump’s election. Says Faris,

I wouldn’t say we changed the film based on the election, but we previewed the film – a rough cut of the film before the election – and it did okay, but we were still working on the film. A month later, after the election, we previewed it again and the score jumped. I think the movie got better, but you could just feel it in the room after the election that it changed how the movie felt and the light that was shed on the film – or the darkness that was shed.

Dayton followed up,

One thing that we wanted from the start was that we made an effort not to have clear bad guys. Even Bill [Pullman, playing Jack Kramer] in his rhetoric is a dimensional person who deserves respect. That’s the thing I’ve learned through this process now more than ever is you need to respect the people you’re facing and engage them. Billie Jean never called him a name – she wanted to engage him and talk to him. She beat Bobby because she respected him. It’s also a long game. Billie Jean showed that you might not win the early battles, but you stay at it and in the end you can prevail.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES opens on September 22.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.