Forget what happens on the tennis court in the titular match. In Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King trounces Bobby Riggs in screen time.
Indeed, this chronicle of the events leading up to the 1973 exhibition match places a worthwhile spotlight on King’s role as a feminist pioneer in sports — and tennis, in particular — prior to the Title IX era, at the expense of much perspective on his brash opponent or his motives.
Still, the film features shining performances on both sides of the net and manages a fair amount of intrigue, even for those who know the outcome, while volleying tones both dramatic and comedic.
As the film opens, King (Emma Stone) is lamenting unequal prize money for women’s tennis players to a tournament executive (Bill Pullman). So she and seven other top female stars branch out to form their own tour with a cigarette sponsorship and publicity from a magazine publisher (Sarah Silverman).
King’s rise to fame coincides with turmoil in her personal life. With her doting husband (Austin Stowell) at home, she begins an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and the resulting stress impacts her performance. After all, she knows disclosure of her bisexuality could negatively impact her image and career during such a pivotal period.
Meanwhile, Riggs (Steve Carell) is an opportunistic former Grand Slam men’s champion who, at 55, challenges King to a match at Houston’s Astrodome for a $100,000 jackpot. After hesitating, she later agrees, sensing an opportunity to quiet doubters and broaden the appeal of women’s tennis. Riggs plays up the match as a “male chauvinist pig versus a hairy-leg feminist,” yet in reality, he’s really a hustler burdened with gambling debts who feigns chauvinism to fuel publicity.
As directed by the tandem of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the film shrewdly captures the visual texture of the period through more than just throwback fashions and a nostalgic soundtrack.
The straightforward if uneven screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) provides a glimpse into the passion and competitiveness that made King one of the greatest and most influential players of all time. And it doesn’t do much to reverse Riggs’ reputation as a disgraced sideshow.
Battle of the Sexes conveys both the absurd spectacle and underlying high stakes in its true-life tale, while staging the climactic on-court action with crowd-pleasing flair.