On September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, with great ceremonial adornments, strode to the center of the playing field of the Houston Astrodome, where a tennis court had been put in place. The event was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” and it was fraught with import. An exhibition game, it carried the onus of standing in for the still insurgent women’s lib movement — as well as the aggrieved countermeasures of those who took ugly pride in calling themselves male chauvinist pigs — or at least it did once King emerged triumphant in straight sets.
The new film Battle of the Sexes revives the sense of celebration. Directed by the team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton — who together helmed the art house sensation Little Miss Sunshine — the movie depicts the frenzy of female empowerment that led up to a reluctant King (Emma Stone) relenting to the overtures of Riggs (Steve Carell) to face him in a publicity stunt event. In the reckoning of the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire and, for a time, a regular collaborator of director Danny Boyle), King saw the social weight the match could carry, especially since she was deeply engaged in the then-upstart Women’s Tennis Association in an attempt to earn some level of pay equity for the athletes outfitted in skirts as they whacked balls over a tightly-string net. For Riggs, the event was a stunt, an extension of his hustler mentality. For King — and her sisterhood — it was a chance to prove worthiness to be viewed as athletes engaged in competition, rather than some cute sideshow to the men’s game.
The signal accomplishment of the film is the way it conveys the serious undercurrents of the spectacle sports event by sharply focusing on what it mean to King, both as a personal test and a social statement. Stone is marvelous in the role, largely eschewing affectations of impression to instead burrow deep into the character of King. (Carell is also good as Riggs, though he leans more on the physical trappings and other transported tics afforded him.) The obsessive nature of a competitor is present throughout, but Stone wisely tempers the drive with pings of uncertainty. Stone’s version of King knows that all the self-determination in the world might not be enough to prevent a crucial serve from landing on the wrong side of the line.
The film is engaging and sparks with charm, especially in the first half as King and her cohorts address the blatant sexism of their sport’s chief executives by striking out on their own. (A cracking performance by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, one of the masterminds of the WTA, bolsters these sequences mightily.) The ambitions of the filmmakers prove to be more than the film can comfortably contain. King’s tentative awakening to her romantic preference for women is depicted with such aching tenderness that it becomes dreadfully dull, especially since Andrea Riseborough is given only the barest sketch of a person to play as the tennis star’s hairdresser paramour. Where much of the rest of the film is deft, this subplot is didactic, capped off by Alan Cumming’s tennis outfit designer providing a wistful pep talk on the hopeful future ahead for the GLBTQ community that feels like it should conclude with him smiling warmly and dissolving into a cloud of glittery magic dust. The personal travails of Riggs off the courts hold a similar narrative stagnancy.
Battle of the Sexes is at its most cunning when it simply lets the dullard sexism of the era be held up like a foggy photographic slide to the light. For all the buffoonish machismo of Riggs (who was engaged more in colorful showmanship than actual expression of belief, the film argues) or oily misogyny of tennis executive Jack Barker (Bill Pullman), the on-air commentary of Howard Cosell — retrieved from the ABC Sports archives and sprinkled generously throughout the film’s depiction of the main event — is the most damning evidence offered. Whether he’s dismissing elements of King’s game, condescending to tennis star and co-announcer Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), or basically saying King could be pretty if she tried, Cosell epitomizes the cultural crudity that demanded a battle like this to be fought in the first place.