It’s incredible to think the real life Battle of the Sexes tennis match happened at all. Putting world number one woman tennis player Billie Jean King up against fifty-five-year-old former champ Bobby Riggs was a patently insane contest. But feminism was breaking new ground, sexism was rampant, and this circus sideshow became a cultural juggernaut. Their man vs. woman match is still the most watched tennis event ever, to this day. Does the movie Battle of the Sexes live up to its namesake, the wacko pinnacle of seventies gender wars? Or is it just a lot of racket?
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris serve up Battle of the Sexes with winning panache. The duo that directed Little Miss Sunshine know their way around quirky uplift. They’ve got plenty to work with. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is the top woman player in tennis, but Australian Margaret Court is nipping at her heels. She’s duking it out with the US Lawn Tennis Association over prize money, arguing if women players have the same draw as men, they should earn the same. And while her husband Larry King (different Larry King, played by Austin Stowell) is super supportive, Billie Jean is wrestling with the dawning certainty she’s attracted to women.
Meanwhile Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) is a washed up pro living on his wife Priscilla’s largesse (captured with subtle certitude by Elisabeth Shue). He gambles constantly to keep some kind of competitive thrill in his life, betting on ludicrous stunts like playing while he runs around the court with two dogs on leashes. Carrell’s charm keeps Riggs from cutting too harsh a figure, more a showy oaf with an angle that a woman-hating sleaze.
The tennis bosses don’t care for King’s gumption. To protest, she and her manager Gladys Heldman (an effective Sarah Silverman) take the women players off the circuit, forming the Women’s Tennis Association and organizing their own tour. This in turn gives Riggs the brainwave to challenge King with a battle of the sexes match, to put these uppity women back in their place.
The story ping-pongs back and forth between these two, with a will she or won’t she take the gambit structure. But a lot of the plot sits on the sidelines to make room for King’s budding relationship with her hair stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Emma Stone’s wonderful at capturing King’s inner turmoil as she recognizes who she might really be. The film’s unsubtle in playing out the romance, falling on an almost gauzy Harlequin vibe.
The net result is peculiar but enjoyable. Faced with a real life story brimming with curious characters and over-the-top antics, Battle of the Sexes comes off more like a feminist fable. From the distance of forty-four years, it’s hard to appreciate the real victories of the era. Of course there’s the misogynist pushback of our Trumpian times. Even the equal pay question is far from won in most job arenas. It wasn’t until Venus and Serena Williams fought vociferously for equal prize money that it happened in tennis. That was in 2007, thirty-four years after King first staked that ground.
Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs was a meaningful moment for women. With millions watching, she took him down in the Houston Astrodome, fer chrissakes. But it was just one in a huge number of victories for one of the best players of all time. Battle of the Sexes gives into the circus more than it showcases the tennis, but it does take pains to portray the single-mindedness necessary to be a champion. There’s just too much going on, and too much play to both sides, for the movie to cohere into something more potent. With King’s relationships so clearly in the foreground, it’s love that wins this match.