Battle of the Sexes
Directed by: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Elisabeth Shue
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
2 hrs. 1 min.
Considering what was happening in 1972-73, it might be understandable for a young person to raise a skeptical eyebrow on learning that an exhibition tennis match was a seminal event. In the midst of Vietnam, Watergate and Roe v. Wade, a garrulous gadfly of a huckster named Bobby Riggs really did challenge Billie Jean King to a match he said would prove male superiority . . . and fatten his pockets.
Over 30,000 people filled the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 20, 1973, with a galaxy of stars among them. The event also had one of the largest TV audiences ever, with an estimated 50 million viewers in the U.S. tuning in, riveted by the game and perhaps by the inflections of Howard Cosell. Battle of the Sexes faithfully revisits the match, lob for lob, spin for spin, backhand for backhand, but it digs deeper. It’s the story of a life-of-the-party hustler versus a world-class athlete in the midst of a personal revelation. Together, in a super-hyped happening, they’d play a part in our culture’s progress.
Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, the trio behind the good-hearted fun of Little Miss Sunshine, exercise the same kind of spirit setting the stage for the match. Emma Stone, tasked with emoting King’s gradual awakening to her orientation, displays the range and likability that won her the Oscar for La La Land. Steve Carell, Oscar-nominated for playing John DuPont in Foxcatcher, embodies his character, Bobby Riggs, with dogged goofiness. In life, King knew Riggs was not so much a chauvinist as a showman. Carell’s performance makes that obvious to all.
To be clear, there was much at stake for both. Riggs was a problem gambler whose exasperated wife, Priscilla (a controlled, beautiful Elisabeth Shue), had had just about enough. King was frustrated with the fact that prize money for a man was eight times that of what women were awarded. When the unctuous president of the Lawn Tennis Association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), rationalizes this disparity, King and friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman in a role she eats up with a spoon) start a women’s tour. Much more than Riggs, Kramer is singled out as the true chauvinist, believing that more people will pay to see men play tennis than women.
The married King meets hair stylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) as the tour begins, and encounters feelings that, if they’d surfaced back then, could have wrecked her career and the tour. Around this time, Riggs gets the idea to challenge her to an exhibition match. After she turns him down, he’s more successful approaching a player who’d beaten King, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). When Riggs beats Court, a seething King finally decides to take Riggs on . . . and silence the chauvinists, once and for all.
Like any film that dramatizes actual events, you know the ending before you buy your ticket. How you get to the event itself becomes paramount, if the film is to be of any significance at all. The journey of Battle of the Sexes is funny, and full of heart; a winning look back at a potential sideshow that, instead, thrust the cause of equality into the spotlight. In hindsight, which is always as tranquil and limpid as a lake at sunset, 1973 never looked so good. Not all the issues from then have reached resolution, and in a good many ways, there has been a boomerang effect. Battles of the sexes are still fought, and for even greater stakes. Billie Jean King won her match, was awarded equal prize money, and discovered herself. The late Bobby Riggs found peace. The satisfaction in that alone is the stuff of a worthwhile movie experience.