The most significant conflict in Battle of the Sexes isn’t the much hyped exhibition tennis game between the legendary athletes Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone)—the real-life 1973 match that’s the ostensible subject of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s new film. More gripping is the struggle that plays out in the background of the famous match, one that built the foundation of the modern sport. In the first half of the movie, King organizes a boycott of a major tennis tournament over the disparity in prize money between men and women, and helps found the Virginia Slims Circuit, a series of tennis tournaments that eventually became the Women’s Tennis Association, a principal organizing body of the sport.
As played by Stone, King is somewhat mousy and shy in private, and even-handed and friendly in public. So, of course, she’s tarred as a radical by old boys of the sport like Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the organizer of the tournament she pulls out of. King’s supposed extremism amounted to arguing for equal prize money for female players and a union to help support their profession. The outsized reaction her effort received is the most fascinating part of Battle of the Sexes, a crowd-pleasing, middle-of-the-road piece of cinema that’s nonetheless frighteningly relevant today.
Battle of the Sexes is directed with all the verve of a TV movie. It depicts tennis as little more than a job for King and a lark for Riggs, a retired legend of the sport who is now touring the oldies circuit to try and cover his gambling debts. That’s perfectly fitting, however, for a film covering a sporting event that was about much more than pure athleticism. Riggs vs. King was a sideshow blown up to national proportions by Riggs’s skill for advertising his own brand of chauvinism, which he inflated to cartoonish proportions to get himself back in the news and eventually lure King onto the court.
As King notes before their showdown, Riggs is largely just putting on a show for the cameras—but his public supporters, including Kramer, bought into his argument that men were inherently superior athletes and deserving of more prize money. Battle of the Sexes might be about a seemingly innocuous publicity stunt, but it was a stunt that became symbolic of a generational war over gender roles. King was no longer one athlete, but a standard-bearer for the very concept of feminism, and the battle she had to fight was not the one she was trying to draw attention to.
It’s not hard to connect the dots to the present day, especially when considering Riggs’s particular Trumpian brand of showmanship. But there’s little malevolence to Carell, who plays Riggs as a mostly harmless buffoon, a lovable cad spouting canned lines about women belonging in the kitchen. His half of the movie, as a result, feels pretty airless and slow—there aren’t many compelling stakes to his publicity ploy outside of his gambling addiction, which is presented with the same easy-breezy tone as everything else. Riggs shouldn’t be someone viewers take super-seriously, but as a competitive foil, he isn’t much to root against either.
King’s half is much more interesting, and Stone’s performance is surprisingly thoughtful and internal—less of a broad impression than Carell’s. The early chunk of the film, which follows King’s organization of the pioneering Virginia Slims Tour alongside the famed publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), is engaging, as is the material focusing on her burgeoning relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Dayton and Faris handle King’s first lesbian relationship with far more nuance and care than the main storyline, which often feels like little more than a loose summary leading up to an inevitable conclusion—the big ’73 match at the Houston Astrodome.
Riseborough is extremely winning as Barnett, a freer spirit than the relatively buttoned-down King, and her chemistry with Stone is effortlessly tender, even as their relationship threatens to spill into the public eye and endanger King’s marriage. Much like the story of the Virginia Slims Tour, King and Barnett’s romance almost feels like it could carry its own movie; and as a subplot, it’s far more enthralling than scenes of Carell palling around with his tennis buddies and causing a ruckus at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
But even though the subplots about King’s life generate the best drama, the film is ploddingly building to a much simpler (and less interesting) showdown: the “battle of the sexes” itself. Dayton and Faris first depict Riggs’s May 1973 match against King’s rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), a thorough victory for Riggs that prompts King to finally accept his challenge to try and shut him up. I won’t spoil the outcome of the Riggs-King match (though a quick Google search would certainly do that for you), but there isn’t much suspense to the script, written by the Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire). The battle’s been waged throughout the movie, on many fronts, and it’s clear what side the storytellers are rooting for.