Battle of the Sexes, the new film directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), tells the story of how and why 29-year-old tennis great Billie Jean King decided to accept the taunting challenge by 55-year-old fading champion Bobby Riggs to a one-on-one match in 1973, intended to demonstrate that women were constitutionally incapable of beating men on the court. Though arguably flawed insofar as its sociopolitical message is overly explicit and belabored, it’s a breezy, compelling crowdpleaser of a movie that should hook in all the daughters and parents of daughters who were so inspired by last year’s Hidden Figures.
The challenge with making a based-on-facts movie like this is how to ratchet up suspense and emotional engagement when the audience knows the outcome: King (Emma Stone) clobbered Riggs (Steve Carell), so handily that there was much speculation afterwards that he might have taken a dive in order to wriggle out from under his heap of gambling debts. He had, after all, recently beaten Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who had recently beaten King. But, to the degree that Battle of the Sexes is about tennis, it’s about the politics and the psychology of the sport. Billie Jean was at the top of her game in those years, while Bobby by then was substituting vitamin megadoses for hard training. And as this movie admirably illustrates, both of them, along with Court, were greatly impacted in their play by the baggage of their personal lives.
We also know now that King and Riggs became close friends following the grudge match, and that his parading as a “male chauvinist pig” was largely a public relations stunt – as were most of his games in the sunset days of his tennis career, in which he typically played in outlandish costumes, walking dogs, riding a sheep or substituting a frying pan for a racquet. Though channeling the character’s obnoxious public persona to the hilt, Carell also affords us glimpses into his rather woebegone home life, where his gambling addiction has become an outlet for the frustration he feels over having been supported by his wealthy in-laws for years. We see him in a sympathetic light any time he’s with young children, showing a genius for distraction and imaginative play, and when he tries, in a bumbling-but-sincere way, to win back the affections of his estranged wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).
Billie Jean’s primary adversary here is actually the old-boy tennis establishment, personified by promoter Jack Kramer. Bill Pullman, who’s about to receive the Maverick Award for acting at this year’s Woodstock Film Festival, pulls out all the stops as a cold-blooded, patronizing sexist standing dead in the way of women’s progress in the sport. Some of the lines that he’s given by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) are so over-the-top that, even if you were around back then, they seem head-shakingly difficult to believe. Then again, over-the-top sexism apparently still doesn’t hurt one’s election chances, so maybe we haven’t really come such a long way, baby.
What’s also rattling Billie Jean, once the first renegade women’s tennis tour sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes gets underway, is the realization that she is more sexually attracted to a woman, hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), than to her highly supportive husband Larry (Austin Stowell). In real life, her lesbian inclinations dawned on King much earlier; but for dramatic impact, the movie telescopes time, as movies are wont to do. It’s in these scenes of internal struggle that Stone really gets to shine, showing us the more vulnerable side of the character in sharp contrast to the powerhouse that she was on the tennis court, driven by her commitment to excellence.
Though this is primarily Emma Stone’s movie, and a most worthy addition to her filmography, other actors deserve special mention as well. Natalie Morales strikes sparks as King’s wisecracking doubles partner Rosie Casals; Alan Cumming is a delight as Ted Tinling, King’s friend, confidant and costume designer; and Sarah Silverman steals every scene in which she appears as Gladys Heldman, World Tennis Magazine publisher and den mother of the Virginia Slims Tour (which later evolved into the Women’s Tennis Association).
Battle of the Sexes is briskly paced and beautifully shot and cut, with some of the best handheld camerawork that I’ve seen in a while, especially in the tennis match scenes – which, yes, are successfully rendered as nailbiters, despite the ink already being dry in the record books. The costumers and set dressers must’ve had a field day coming up with such an agglomeration of truly terrible 1970s clothing, furniture, mullets, moustaches and automobiles. Yes, every one of those ridiculous styles did, documentably, exist back then; but did we all look that bad all of the time? Really?