One of the most important tennis matches in history – and one of the sport’s most iconic and influential figures – finally gets the big screen treatment in Battle of the Sexes, which recounts the events leading up to the 1973 showdown of the same name pitting 55-year-old Bobby Riggs against 29-year-old Billie Jean King. The heavily promoted contest was held at the Houston Astrodome and attracted more than 90 million television viewers eager to find out if the self-styled “male chauvinist pig” could defeat the tennis world’s de facto spokesperson for gender equality.
But before we get there, we first need to set the stage: it’s the early 1970s, and decorated champion Billie Jean (Emma Stone) is furious when she learns the cash prize for the men’s division of the upcoming USLTA tour is eight times more than the sum any female competitor is eligible to earn. “Men are simply more exciting to watch,” admonishes promoter and commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) in response to her ire. “It’s not your fault, it’s just biology.” She sets out to prove him wrong, teaming up with World Tennis magazine mogul Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to form a new women’s league sponsored by Virginia Slims – a curious choice of backers for a group of athletes.
Prepping for a publicity photo shoot with a trip to the salon, Billie Jean meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), and their instant, electric connection awakens something that she’s clearly spent a lifetime trying to suppress. This scene is one of the film’s best, as we witness Billie Jean coming alive for what feels like the first time, and before long Marilyn is not only showing up to the matches, but also getting invited back to Billie Jean’s room. It’s an indulgence the tennis pro can’t really afford, recognizing that if anyone discovers their tryst it would ruin her marriage as well as her career, but she just can’t help herself.
Stone serves up some of the best work of her career in Battle of the Sexes, particularly in scenes where Billie Jean is trying to come to terms with her sexuality. Torn between her position as one of the world’s premiere athletes and her desire to live the life she truly wants, Billie Jean’s life is thrown into turmoil, and Stone embodies the agony and confusion that must have come from being faced with a decision of that magnitude. A surprise encounter with her doting, dutiful husband (Austin Stowell) hours before an important match is a heartbreaking moment, for every character involved.
Meanwhile, former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) struggles with an unfulfilling office job and a gambling addiction that’s quickly testing the patience of his wife (Elisabeth Shue), and longs for a return to his glory days on the court. As Billie Jean’s popularity grows and her crusade for equality gains momentum, Bobby smells an opportunity to thrust himself back into the spotlight while settling the debate over whether or not men are truly the superior sex. The story quickly becomes a media frenzy which Bobby embraces to the fullest, reveling in his newfound infamy as he tells reporters “I love women, in the bedroom and the kitchen.”
Much of this material is played for laughs, with Riggs coming off more like an endearing goofball portraying a character instead of a closed-minded misogynist. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have acknowledged that when the film was in production, they fully expected the election of 2016 to have a different outcome: casting Riggs as the loudmouthed buffoon who eventually gets his comeuppance at the hands of a more talented, more qualified female opponent would have made for a pitch-perfect allegory. Instead, the film is premiering in a decidedly different sociopolitical climate, and it’s interesting to ponder how much different the tone might have been had the filmmakers been able to foresee a Trump presidency.
That being said, Battle of the Sexes remains an undeniable crowd-pleaser, but one that doesn’t quite fit into the typical formula for most sports biopics – mostly because, with the exception of the titular bout, very little of the film takes place on the tennis court. Dayton and Faris choose instead to focus more on the personal lives of Billie Jean and Bobby and the motivations for their actions both on and off the court, allowing us to engage with them on a deeper level and putting this film a cut above other selections from the same genre.