A highly public battle royale between an chauvinistic showboat media goofball and a serious, competent woman? Hm. Now where in recent history have we lived this story? At least the real-life events that inspired Battle of the Sexes, about the circus surrounding the 1973 tennis match between 29-year-old pro Billie Jean King and relentlessly self-promoting 55-year-old retired pro Bobby Riggs, had a happier outcome.
Riggs, who publicly mocked sexual equality and women’s lib, blew up the match into a massive publicity stunt and product-placement bonanza. King showed up ready to prove how powerful, centered and up for a challenge women could be; Riggs showed up in a chariot, wearing blue suede shoes and hawking Sugar Daddy candies and Hai Karate aftershave as part of his several endorsement deals. Battle of the Sexes may not have been produced as an act of wish fulfillment, but in our carnival-huckster era, feelings of déjà vu and what-might-have-been loom over it like a dark clouds.
That said, the presence of Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Oscar-nominated directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) almost guarantees something entertaining, humanistic and rousing. On that score, Battle of the Sexes doesn’t disappoint. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land) energizes every moment with a constantly wandering eye and a grainy 1970s look that feels just right. The movie crackles with a wall-to-wall soundtrack of period tunes, and it’s all been art directed, wigged and costumed to cheesy vintage perfection. Making use of jaw-droppingly sexist old news footage of comments about King and feminists by Howard Cosell and others is a nice touch, too.
Beaufoy, Faris and Dayton have concocted a smart, touching, deeply funny thing with zippy, if superficial, “greatest hits”-style tennis sequences, but as they chart King’s history—calling out the tennis establishment’s dismissive treatment of female players and deftly handling King’s exploration and gradual acceptance of her own sexuality—they keep hinting that it’s going to drill down deeper and become more incisive. It just never quite gets there, at least not consistently.
Why do the moviemakers go so easy on Riggs? In scenes portraying his home life, it’s as if they’re trying to normalize his behavior and turn him into a lovable, misunderstood sitcom man-child, with his put-upon, justifiably pissed-off wife (Elisabeth Shue) portrayed as a chilly shrew. These scenes feel padded, expendable and jerry-rigged—the kind of thing writers get forced to create in order to attract big stars. Even the centerpiece tennis match downplays what a butt-kicking triumph it was over institutionalized chauvinism. The thinness and determinedly once-over-lightly treatment of the material is curious, and it’s clearly not for lack of talent on both sides of the camera.
Emma Stone is even better than expected—flinty, focused, charismatic, complicated, her body language fluid, almost always slightly hunched and leaning forward as if ready for a serve. Although she plays King as a shy, awkward creature, she’s a dynamo, a woman who won’t back down, and Stone is just as good as can be in this. When the material allows for it, she and Steve Carrell play off each other with grit, ferocious commitment and undeniable charm. They are backed up nicely by Alan Cumming as Ted Tinling, the women’s sports clothing designer with his own social and personal battles to fight. There’s also outstanding work from Austin Stowell, as King’s baffled, all-too-human Ken Doll of a husband, and the essential Andrea Riseborough, as the warm, down-to-earth hairdresser with whom King forges a romantic bond.
The chemistry between Stone and Riseborough movingly dramatizes King’s gradual political and emotional awakening—to sexism, casual and blatant; to homophobia; to unequal pay; to the perils of celebrity. How King navigates these landmines and keeps her sanity, dignity and athletic edge is the stuff of an even better movie—especially because these realities resonate as powerfully now as they did then, maybe even more so.
For those worrying about being lectured to, relax. The movie doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. Sure, its mere existence at the time in which we’re living means that it has messages and statements a-plenty, but it would be hard to imagine any reasonably well-adjusted woman or man being anything but moved and enlightened by it.
As good as it is, the film’s lack of depth does a disservice to the importance of the barriers broken down by Billie Jean King and her ongoing impact on a sport and a movement. The battle still rages.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.