A glossy and often relevant retelling of one of the most famous matches ever, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes is centered on both the tennis court and the court of public opinion. Both matters are firmly on the focused mind of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), the famed pro who was demanding equal pay for women in 1973 when the picture is set.
King and her fellow female players aren’t getting near that, so they start a league of their own, under the sponsorship of Virginia Slim cigarettes (it was a different time). Another player sees an opportunity to cash in on the publicity and that’s Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former champion now in his mid 50s who spends most of his time as a compulsive gambler (though he doesn’t see it that way). His challenge to King to meet on the court generated a divide among the sexes and many eyeballs on the eventual event – apparently about 90 million.
The court of public opinion doesn’t extend to gender issues. King is married to Larry (Austin Stowell) who helps run her fledgling empire. Yet when she meets free spirit hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a romance quickly develops. King is smitten, but she knows it must stay in the closet to protect her career.
Battle of the Sexes tells this tale entertainingly and somewhat superficially. The themes of gender equality are ones that render four decades later. Stone has the most material to work with in her nuanced and strong portrayal of King. There’s not much nuance to Carell’s Riggs, though he’s certainly fun to watch.
The screenplay doesn’t delve too deep into his story, but Carell plays it well enough to avoid him becoming a total caricature. King seems to know Bobby isn’t quite the chauvinist louse he purports to be. The same cannot be said for Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer, a prominent former pro turned announcer who doesn’t understand anything about women’s liberation. The pic is peppered with familiar faces in smaller parts, including Elisabeth Shue as Bobby’s wealthy and frustrated wife and Alan Cumming as the team’s outfit designer who quickly figures out Billie’s affair.
King would eventually earn the Presidential Medal of Freedom due to her advocacy for gay rights and equal pay. Sexes sees her at the advent of that life’s work. We see her drive as she tirelessly practices to beat a man at his game when so few think it’s possible. In fact, hearing Howard Cosell’s actual play-by-play during the game is both a treat and a stark reminder that it was a different era. We know eventually that King’s relentless work ethic will be applied elsewhere and for an even greater cause. Battle doesn’t delve overly deep into how she got there, but it serves up its replay of history admirably enough.
*** (out of four)