“Battle of the Sexes” is undoubtedly a sports movie. The climatic tennis match between Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) takes up much of the last half hour of the film, but it isn’t strictly a sports drama. Like all good sports films it’s not really about the game, it’s about the human spirit that makes the game great. Here we see some impressive tennis but we also get a glimpse of how Billie Jean King’s perseverance helped change the game and the world.
“Watch out guys,” says a TV announcer commenting on what would become one of King’s championship matches, “there’s no stopping this little lady.” It’s 1973 and King is a wizard on the court, a focussed athlete who makes a fraction of her male colleagues. “The men are more exciting to watch,” says United States Lawn Tennis Association honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). “They’re faster. They’re stronger. It’s not your fault; it’s just biology.”
Outraged that there’s a $12,000 paycheque for the men but only a $1500 pay out for women at an upcoming USLTA tournament King and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) take action. They set up a rival, all female league sponsored by Virginia “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Slims. Their goal is to democratize tennis, take it out of the country club, and make it for everyone.
Meanwhile former world champ Bobby Riggs is now 55 years old and working in an office job courtesy of his wealthy wife’s father. At night he gambles, despite going to Gambler’s Anonymous twice a week, playing with rich men for money. Top even up the odds he does outlandish things like play with a racket in one hand and two dogs on leashes in the other. He wants back in the big time but the big time isn’t interested in him.
Always a hustler, Riggs comes up with the idea of a Battle of the Sexes match between himself and the much younger King. She declines lading him on to star player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). When he shellacs the top-seeded Court it does more than just shine a spotlight on Riggs, it reinforces the idea that women aren’t as good as men. On a roll he next offers $100,000 to any woman who can take him on the court. “Who else is going to beat him?” says King. “He’s backed me into a corner.”
The rest, as they say is history. A media circus follows as Riggs publicly taunts King—“I’m going to put in the ‘show’ back in the chauvinism.”—building up hype for what would become the most watched tennis match of all time.
“Battle of the Sexes” is a feel good movie but it’s about more than a pulse racing final game. Along the way it paints a convincing picture of the casual sexism that drove King to take a very public stand, against the USLTA and then Riggs. It’s also about her relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and the quandary of gay athletes, then and now.
Stone, in a performance that has early Oscar buzz, is best when she’s off the court. She warm but spunky—like Mary Tyler Moore spunky—when we first meet her. The character deepens, however, when Marilyn enters the picture. As the married and deeply in the closet King, Stone blossoms as the romance with Marilyn blooms. Those scenes are tender and help ground an otherwise relentlessly perky movie.
Carell nails the “colourful and controversial” Riggs. He is a ball of energy, bulldozing his way through the movie. His wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) says she loves the “way you walk into a room and fill it up,” so Carell does his best to fill up the screen. He has the movie’s best lines—“Don’t get me wrong. I love women… In the bedroom and in the kitchen.”—and brings a sense of old school theatricality to the role.
As a portrait of women’s rights and the sexual revolution of the 1970s “Battle of the Sexes” covers a lot of ground but does so in an entertaining although slightly overlong way.