In September of 1973, long retired male tennis player Bobby Riggs took on Billie Jean King, then one of the top female tennis players in the world, in an exhibition match. The hype for their battle was centered around the women’s liberation movement and easily captivated the country. The story behind this event is told in Battle of the Sexes, a film that is entertaining in spots, but is really carried by one element of the production.
That element is the film’s portrayal of Billie Jean King as a very smart and driven woman who happens to be a more than capable tennis player. Though tennis is her passion, equal pay for women is her mission. King is played by Emma Stone (an Oscar winner as Best Actress this year for La La Land) in a very good performance. The best thing about it is how not showy it is. It allows Billie Jean’s story to speak for itself. The scenes where she stoically fights for women’s rights are very engaging. Her other scenes, dealing with her newfound love for her hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), and guilt toward her loyal husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), do not work as well.
Her sexuality never becomes an integral part of the film’s story, yet a lot of time is spent on how she feels about Marilyn. If this were a biopic about Billie Jean King, then looking at her struggle from every direction would be necessary. I would love to see a film about Billie Jean King’s life, starring Emma Stone. It would be fascinating. But that is not what this movie is. It is an examination of one event, what led to it and what it meant to society at large. The other subplots just take up time without adding any insight.
One of those subplots is about Bobby Riggs. In theory, he should be as important to this story as King. However, as written in the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire), Riggs is a shameless self-promoter playing a sexist pig as a way to extend his time in the spotlight and make some extra money. And that’s about it. Steve Carell is game in the role, but there is not all that much to play. He is essentially a supporting character here, albeit one that gets far too much screen time. The scenes focusing on his gambling addiction and his frustrated wife (Elisabeth Shue) feel like a distraction. I would’ve preferred more scenes between him and King.
Battle of the Sexes (115 minutes minus the end credits) only really comes alive when King and the women she has convinced to join her on a new tennis tour are pushing forward for women’s rights. This is a group that knows that what they are doing could destroy their careers. The standouts from this part of the film are Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals (best known as Tom’s girlfriend Lucy on Parks and Recreation), a competitor and friend of King, comedienne Sarah Silverman, who gets a few laughs as their agent, Gladys, and the always welcome Alan Cumming (Eli from the CBS series The Good Wife) as the man who makes their dresses. Unfortunately, not that much is done with this group. They mainly act as a Greek chorus, commenting on Billie Jean’s decisions.
Battle of the Sexes tells an important story. It shows a huge step in how American female sports (especially tennis) got from where it was in the 1970s to where it is today. Billie Jean King and her fellow trailblazers impressively fought for a worthy cause. At the time, people were distracted from their battle by the sideshows around it, like the one created by Bobby Riggs. Unfortunately, at times, this movie has the same problem.
3¼ out of 5
Emma Stone as Billie Jean King
Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs
Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett
Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals
Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman
Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer
Alan Cumming as Cuthbert Tinling
Jessica McNamee as Margaret Court
Austin Stowell as Larry King
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy