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Film / Battle of the Sexes

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"He made a bet. She made history."
The film's tagline

Battle of the Sexes' is a 2017 biographical sports film based on the famous 1973 tennis match of the same name between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who'd previously collaborated with Carell on Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and written by Simon Beaufoy. The supporting cast includes Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, and Elisabeth Shue.

Battle of the Sexes contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The '70s: Set in 1972-1973. The men have sideburns, women have long or shaggy hair, the tuxedoes have ruffles, people dress in primary colors. The movie actually captures the period very well.
  • '70s Hair: All over the place. Bobby's bowl cut type haircut with the sideburns, Billie's shag, Marilyn's wavy Breck Girl hair, the sculpted haircuts of some of the young men; the film even shows how some people still had traces of the stylings of The '60s with their hair.
  • Adaptational Curves:
  • Amicable Exes: Larry and Billie did end up getting divorced, but the epilogue reveals that they are still friendly and he even made Billie and her current partner, Ilana Kloss, Godmothers to his children.
  • Artistic License – History: The "Original Nine" broke away from the tennis establishment in 1970 and was far more prosperous than shown in the movie. The "Slims" as it was known attracted over 40 players by the end of that year. Around the time of Billie and Bobby's match it had grown so successful that it had absorbed the previous ILTF Grand Prix and became known as the WTA.
  • As Himself: Real footage featuring Howard Cosell from the original match is spliced with Natalie Morales as Rosemary Casals.
  • Bait-and-Switch: After being thrown out of his house by his wife Priscilla, Bobby is seen sitting down with his therapist who tells him his problem may be that he is pursuing the wrong woman, comparing Bobby as the "Alpha Male" to the "Alpha Female". One thinks this is about his relationship with Priscilla, but it's quickly revealed they're actually discussing his pitch to have an exhibition match with Billie Jean King.
  • Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: The other tennis players are discussing whether Billie would beat Bobby, with a good amount of doubters, in the locker room. Out comes Billie out of the toilet stall, having heard everything, and marching out without any acknowledgement of the other players. They look regretful.
  • The Beard: Larry King (no, not the journalist).
  • Betty and Veronica: Two.
    • Billie (Archie), Larry (Betty), Marilyn (Veronica). Larry is Billie Jean's devoted husband of almost 10 years and Marilyn is a flirtatious hairdresser.
    • Bobby (Archie), Priscilla (Betty), Gambling (Veronica). Priscilla is Bobby's takes no nonsense and loving wife of two decades who just wants her husband to be more stable for her sake and their children's. But he can't stay away from gambling.
  • Brainy Brunette: Brown-haired Billie Jean is very intelligent and thoughtful, though less intellectual than the usual trope; Gladys is a darker haired and fierce version of this trope.
  • The Cameo: Lornie Kuhle, who was on Riggs' team (and is played by Eric Christen Olsen), appears as one of the commentators in the film.
  • Chaste Hero: Billie Jean is a female variation on the trope. She is happily married to the only person she has ever been sexually intimate with and is practically fumbling when Marilyn first flirts with her; she is also very awkward when in a club and asked by a young man to dance.
  • Cherry Tapping: Only alluded to a little in the film, but Bobby defeats Margaret Court by playing "soft", hitting lobs and drop shots to keep her off balance rather than the more powerful shots you might expect a male player to use to overwhelm a female opponent.
  • Cool Car: Billie Jean's sports car and Larry's Rolls Royce that he won in a game.
    Larry Riggs: Nice car. You gonna live in it?
  • Decoy Protagonist: Actually Decoy Antagonist. Based on the premise and foregone conclusion it was easy to assume that Bobby Riggs would be the antagonist. However he is shown to just be a Jerk with a Heart of Gold. Jack Kramer as the head of the Federation who actively tries to hold back pay for the women is the real villain of the story and his anguish when Billie wins is quite satisfying. Margaret Court also serves as one to a secondary degree due to her viewing lesbians as degenerates. This is a view she continues to have today so it could also be interpreted as a Take That! by contemporary audiences.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Priscilla, Marilyn, Larry.....Billie Jean and Bobby are married to them and the three do have wheat-colored hair.
  • Exiled to the Couch: What happens to Bobby as Priscilla cannot put up with his gambling and his male chauvinism, especially the gambling.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Billie's hair changes from mid length to shoulder length to neck length during the course of the film.
  • Externally Validated Prophecy: Towards the end of the film, Ted, who is also gay, reassures Billie Jean that “people like us” will be able to love openly one day.
  • Failed a Spot Check: When she gets a call informing her that her husband Larry is coming to her hotel room, Billie trashes a few things, hides tell tale signs of her sleeping with Marilyn only to miss Marilyn's pink lace floral bra, which Larry soon sees and can gather doesn't belong to Billie.
  • Fanservice: Bobby's cheerleaders and the men that lift Billie at the Astrodome are to somewhat evoke this.
  • Finding a Bra in Your Car: Billie is alerted by a friend that her husband is on the way. King scrambles to hide all evidence of Marilyn having spent the night with her, but forgets a bra, which he finds in the bathroom. As it isn't her size, he realizes immediately what's been going on.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone who is up on their history would know that Billie did beat Bobby, and Billie and Larry's marriage eventually ended after Marilyn outed Billie and herself by suing for palimony.
  • Friendly Rivalry: Billie Jean and Bobby were friends until he died from prostate cancer and she remains in touch with his coach and son, who both are on the team against her.
  • Gayngst: Part of Billie's story involves her coming to terms with her sexuality and dealing with the threat of a possible fall out in both her career and personal life.
  • The Glasses Gotta Go: Howard Cosell evoked this in Real Life and in-universe about Billie when she is being carried out into the arena, saying she'd be a Hollywood Beauty if she grew her hair and dumped her glasses.
  • Heroic BSoD: Larry, after being hit with the double whammy of Billie's infidelity and lesbianism. Billie herself falters in her subsequent match.
  • Heteronormative Crusader: Margaret Court and her husband view Billie as a sinner for being a lesbian and believe that Billie's moral crisis will help Margaret beat her. This is not a Historical Villain Upgrade, as Margaret would later champion the campaign in Australia against same-sex marriage.
  • Hubris: How Bobby wins his first Battle of the Sexes and loses his second. Margaret, as in real life, underestimates the old clown Bobby and collapses under the pressure of the moment. In the second match, Bobby is riding high on his crushing victory and has spent most of his prep time lounging at the pool.
  • Intimate Hair Brushing: It shows a sign of attraction between Billie and Marilyn when the latter starts tenderly combing her hair in the salon.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: One of Billie's responses to Bobby's promotion of "male chauvinist pig vs. hairy-legged feminist"?
    Oh by the way? I shave my legs.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Larry genuinely loves and supports Billie Jean, recognizing tennis will be her true love and figuring out that she really does need Marilyn.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Bobby looks funny now, but his office has a portrait of himself in his tennis glory days of The '40s when he was young and handsome.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bobby may be bombastic, insensitive and impulsive, and says a lot of sexist stuff. But he really loves his wife Priscilla, cares for and plays with his young son, and genuinely wants to get in his older son's good graces. Also after the game, he congratulates Billie by admitting he underestimated her.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Both Billie Jean and Marilyn. Billie Jean is too conventional to classify as a "Soft Butch", wears her hair simply and a touch of lipstick while Marilyn wears her hair long and styled and dresses in a manner that shows off her figure.
  • Logo Joke: The Fox Searchlight logo is redone in the style of the 1970s 20th Century Fox logo (the Searchlight label did not exist in the 70s). TSG Entertainment also made a completely new logo that's more era-appropriate for the '70s (the studio didn't even exist before 2012).
  • Lysistrata Gambit: Discussed and joked around with the tennis players, one of them suggests this and another asks "Wouldn't that punish us as well?" and another saying "I won't miss it" with another commenting her husband is inadequate in the bedroom.
  • Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: While the film is portrayed realistically, it highlights the way American society in the 1970s was much more patriarchal than it is today.
  • Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty: There is a lot of doubt that Billie could beat Bobby given that he is a man in spite of their wide age difference. Several characters (including archival footage of contemporary celebrities) directly stating that men are simply too strong and fast for a woman to ever defeat them in tennis. Men also repeatedly comment on the appearance of the female players, with Howard Cosell openly commenting on how Billie Jean King would be very attractive if she cleaned herself up.
  • Minidress of Power: All the women tennis players wear this or short skirts with shorts underneath.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Billie after she and Marilyn have first made love.
  • Modesty Shorts: All the women tennis players wear them under their skirts.
  • Nerd Glasses: Bobby wears them, as befitting his age and what he wore in Real Life.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. Billie's husband and Bobby's older son are both named "Larry".
  • Passionate Sports Girl: Billie Jean and her fellow women tennis players. They just want to be paid their worth as players and be taken just as seriously as the men.
  • Present-Day Past: Mostly averted but one minor example is when Gladys calls someone NASCAR for driving too fast. In 1973 NASCAR was a regional sport popular only in the south. It’s very doubtful tennis players from California had ever heard of it.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Impulsive and loud Bobby (Red) and cautious and modulated Billie (Blue), they are even color coded with her dress (with blue suede shoes) and his Sugar Daddy jacket.
  • Secret-Keeper: Ted Tinling and his designing/life partner are this for Billie, figuring things out rather quickly and warning Billie to be careful.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Priscilla, to the point that this conversation Bobby has with this therapist about "Alpha Female" Billie Jean could be mistaken for Priscilla quite easily.
  • Specs of Awesome: Gladys Heldman in the boardroom, Billie and Bobby on the court and the press.
  • Sports Hero Backstory: Riggs' success at the 1939 Wimbledon championship. He mentions winning all three draws (men's singles, men's doubles, and mixed doubles) but not as an amateur and that his playing during the amateur era is why he learned to hustle.
  • Training Montage: Billie goes through one showing her getting prepped for the Match. This is contrasted with showing Bobby lounging around and partying.
  • Tranquil Fury: Billie gets this when she calls out a man for proclaiming that men are better than women, she asks him if he thinks his Father is better than his Mother.
  • True Blue Femininity: Billie favors this color, often with white. In the Battle of the Sexes, she wore a white dress with a blue trim with some white embroidery with blue suede shoes. Her femininity, or lack thereof, is not to be emphasized.
  • Twofer Token Minority:
    • Justified with Rosie Casals being the only Latina in the group, the tennis world of 1973 was predominantly white.
    • Gladys lampshades it when told she isn't allowed in the Smoker's Room, asking, "Is it because I'm a woman or because I'm a Jew?"
  • Worthy Opponent: Billie and Bobby. Billie Jean wrote that they both came from Southern California and he was a local hero when she was growing up and she looked up to him. After she beat him in the match, Bobby tells her, "I've underestimated you" with no trace of bitterness. They remained friends until he died. In fact, the real-life King recalled that she and Riggs had their last phone conversation on the night before his death, and she ended it with "I love you."