Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes
As a winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, Billie Jean King surely ranks among the greatest players in the history of tennis. But a 21st-century perspective on King’s late-1960s and early ’70s heyday suggests that tournament victories may have been the least of her personal accomplishments.
King learned tennis on the free public courts of Long Beach, California and later made it her mission to rescue the sport from its country club origins and make it accessible to all. As the disparity in pay between men and women on the tennis circuit increased — even as the women’s movement gained momentum — King and her colleagues organized their own tournaments and founded the Women’s Tennis Association, striking a blow for gender equality that was felt around the world.
In 1973, King reluctantly agreed to play a match against middle-aged former tennis star Bobby Riggs that was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.” Riggs took on the persona of a loud-mouthed male chauvinist to create a worldwide media phenomenon — and a made-for-TV spectacle that was viewed by an estimated 90 million people.
That match ostensibly serves as the subject of sports drama Battle of the Sexes. But as directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the film seems uninterested in tennis (it takes almost an hour to get around to a match) and conflicted about buying into the social significance of the manufactured, circuslike “Battle.”
Dayton and Faris instead focus Battle of the Sexes on King’s pioneering efforts to effect social change through sports — and on her behind-the-scenes personal struggles, along with those of Riggs (a compulsive gambler). Raised in a conservative family, King was 29 and married at the time depicted in the film but found herself on an unexpected journey of self-discovery through her passionate affair with hair stylist Marilyn Barnett.
Battle of the Sexes’ most inspired moments come in its portrayal of King’s and Barnett’s budding romance. That’s when the film’s directors appear most free to tell their story visually and move beyond the conventions of mainstream Hollywood fare. Though enjoyable throughout, Battle of the Sexes never quite reconciles its often breezy tone with its main character’s interest in social justice. The film leaves the impression that it might have gone deeper and achieved more.
The charismatic cast clearly was assembled with an eye toward keeping audiences engaged. Sarah Silverman plays trailblazing women’s tennis promoter Gladys Heldman; as King’s fashion designer Ted Tingling, Alan Cumming offers sage advice and hints that King’s travails will one day put her in position to publicly support a new LGBTQ community, which came true years later.
Emma Stone put on pounds of muscle to support her already-strong portrayal of the hyper-athletic King, and Steve Carell easily balances humor with pathos as the attention-starved Riggs. British actress Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) practically steals the show as the free-spirited Barnett.
Shot with vintage lenses and featuring meticulous production design, Battle of the Sexes does a bang-up job of bringing back the ever-more-distant world of the 1970s. But mounted in service of King’s and Riggs’ story, that recreation only reminds us that the fight for gender equality continues even as the culture at large moves on.
Battle of the Sexes opens next Friday, Sept. 29, at the Broad, Elmwood and Canal 9 theaters.