4 out of 5 stars.
“Battle of the Sexes” opens with a scene that, despite taking place in the early 1970s, likely won’t be unfamiliar to many audiences. Fresh off of a winning streak that made her the world’s top woman tennis player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) discovers that the prize money for the male players in an upcoming tournament will be eight times as much as the prize for the female players. When she fails to get a straight answer as to why this is from one of the heads of the association, former tennis player Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), King, along with manager Gladys (Sarah Silverman), recruits a group of fellow female players to form the first all-woman professional tennis tour.
It’s immediately apparent that the men in the sports world don’t take the women seriously, for several asinine reasons that they expound on throughout the film—they don’t sell as many tickets, they belong in the kitchen and shouldn’t ask for more than that, they can’t handle the pressure. One of these men who is bothered by King’s success on the court is Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former tennis champ who, at the age of 55, now spends his time hustling in promotional (not professional) matches and gambling, a habit that is estranging him from his loving wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). When a colleague mentions that he’d love to place money on a match between Riggs and King, Riggs takes the idea seriously, baiting King into taking him on in a match that became a massive, worldwide cultural event, billed as the Battle of the Sexes.
The match takes place in 1973, as the women’s lib movement was gaining momentum throughout the U.S. And this film, while the match is the centerpiece, isn’t so much about tennis as it is about a woman fighting for her rights while also discovering who she is. King, who is married to a man named Larry (played by Austin Stowell, who is also the most understanding cheated-on husband ever), is surprised to find that she’s attracted to a hairdresser she meets on the tour, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Marilyn, with her wide, bright eyes and confident demeanor, plays off of King’s tentativeness perfectly, and the two begin an affair as they journey from city to city on the Virginia Slims’ tennis tour. Stone gives what is probably the best performance of her career so far as she disappears into King, showing how she is torn between the man she loves, the woman she loves, and the game she loves. She shows an immense amount of strength on the court and in her confrontations with the men trying to put her down that makes her a role model to women around the world, but that gives way to a surprising amount of vulnerability in private.
Carell equally embodies Riggs (and actually physically resembles him a lot as well). He has always been adept at playing wacky, over-confident characters, and there is no one who embodies that more than Riggs. Whereas King, in the context of this film at least, is the serious athlete, Riggs is the showman. He relishes billing himself as a male chauvinist, and spends the days leading up to the match engaging in a series of ridiculous promotional stunts and lounging by the pool. But for all of the offensive nonsense he spews, much of Riggs is just that—talk. He isn’t the real villain here. That title belongs to a bevy of supporting players, like Kramer, who are actively devoted to ensuring that women are unable to be on the same level as the men.
Because this film focuses more on King herself than the match, Riggs is relegated to more of a supporting role, and in fact shares few scenes with King. It’s a shame, because the dialogue they do have together is immensely entertaining, and it would be interesting to see more of the development of the relationship between the two figures. Even some of the film’s more intriguing supporting players—Silverman’s Gladys, for example—are nearly forgotten about by the end of the movie. “Battle of the Sexes” is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of “Little Miss Sunshine” fame), and they bring that same balance of humor and drama with a dose of social commentary to this true story. The importance of this match and everything hanging on its outcome—not for tennis, but for women’s rights—is emphasized throughout the film so that when it finally happens, the tension is real, whether you already know what happens or not.
The successful but controversial woman versus the bloated showman is a story that feels all too familiar today, despite taking place over 40 years ago. And many of the issues the film explores, such as equal pay for women, are still being debated and fought over today. That’s one thing this film doesn’t entirely achieve—after it ends, there’s no real sense that things have changed for the better, if at all. But maybe that’s the point, because after all this time, we’re still looking for change.
Runtime: 121 minutes. Rated PG-13.