In the opening sequence of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) gets a phone call from President Nixon, congratulating her for winning her “Grand Slam” title. She replies, pointedly, “I’m glad to be the first woman to do it as well,” and he immediately changes the subject: “Well, I wish you well.” That little interaction is at the heart of Battle of the Sexes, which is being promoted as the wild story of an intersex tennis match, but is much more interested in the trickiness of unapologetic public feminism in the 1970s, and the complications of sexual identity.
King and several of her fellow female tennis stars made headlines in the early 1970s by leaving the International Lawn Tennis Federation in protest of pay disparities between male and female tennis players (the typical purse was eight times higher for men), establishing the Women’s Tennis Association and mounting their own tours and tournaments. “I’m gonna be the best,” King explains. “That way I can change things. That way I can have a voice.”
King’s life is coming together just as that of the “colorful and controversial” Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrel) is falling apart. Long retired from pro tennis, he’s losing his mind in his do-nothing job at his father-in-law’s office, and losing his money (or, more accurately, his wife’s) thanks to his gambling problem. Jonesing for the action – and attention – of the sport he left, he challenges King to an exhibition match, which turns into a giant event at the Houston Astrodome, its showbiz and pageantry broadcast in prime time by Howard Cosell. That match is far enough in the rearview that a healthy chunk of Battle of the Sexes’ audience may not know how it turns out (or at least the specifics; the outcome’s not hard to guess, based on the fact that they made a movie out of it).
What’s striking about Dayton and Faris’s film is that its best material has little to do with that event anyway. It’s more the story of King’s professional awakening – and her sexual one, which first comes to her, like a thunderbolt, when hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) begins flirting with her during a styling session. Their connection stops the scene entirely, and the section that follows leans into this attraction, capturing its intensity, playfulness, and discovery (watch for the mixture of excitement and panic that crosses Billie Jean’s face when Marilyn accepts her invitation to crash at her hotel).
This is all complicated by the fact that Billie Jean is married, to the cigarette-ad handsome Larry (Austin Stowell), and Simon Beaufoy’s script is admirably sympathetic towards Larry and his feeling of betrayal; it would’ve been so easy to make him the villain. But if he and Marilyn are suspicious and/or jealous of each other, they’re also bound by their love for Billie Jean, and their desire for her success and happiness.
The filmmakers don’t just set Battle of the Sexes in 1973, but carefully try to make it look like it was made then; there’s a pronounced period aesthetic to Linus Sandgren’s photography, so much so that it almost looks like Haskell Wexler shot it. They also capture a real sense of place, getting into the tour’s on-the-road groove, seemingly at home in these hotel rooms, cars, and locker rooms, even if they house some sadly predictable moments (just don’t badmouth anyone while you’re in the bathroom, they’re always in the stall). And they have some trouble in the climax, what with tennis being so boring to watch if you’re not a fan (hi). It’s a problem the filmmakers seem acutely aware of; we don’t see even a portion of any actual tennis play until nearly an hour in.
Yet the bigger problem is that King’s story is so much more compelling than Riggs’, so (in spite of Carell’s best efforts), the character just becomes a distraction. Carell has a good time, and gets off some funny bits (the best is probably his visit to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, where he announces, “You folks aren’t here because you’re gamblers, you’re here because you’re terrible gamblers”). But the film walks a fine line of giving us both too much Riggs (if they’d really rather make a movie about King) and not enough (if they really wanna make a movie about both).
And, what’s more, the filmmakers seem weirdly invested in letting him off the hook. At their shared press conference, Riggs insists, “I’m gonna put the ‘show’ back in chauvinism,” and the film takes great pains to point us instead to the real villain, ITLF honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who ends up basically standing in for the patriarchy. Was he ultimately more harmful than Riggs? Maybe – but the guys in the Astrodome audience weren’t wearing “I’m a male chauvinist pig” T-shirts because the head of the ITLF said it. And the excuses for Riggs don’t stop there; it was all salesmanship and hype, we’re told, and he was just a hustler, and he loved his wife, and oh yeah, he lost, but he was also way older than her and was too busy doing photo shoots and publicity stunts to train properly. (Even the poster finds King looking at Riggs with a kind of amused adoration.)
Are these all facts? Perhaps. But there are also choices made in how many times you want to underline and restate those facts. Battle of the Sexes is ultimately a fine, enjoyable movie – a funny and involving crowd-pleaser with some strong performances and sharp moments. But it’s also a reminder that when they’re seeking out screenwriters to tell women’s stories, they might ought to consider occasionally hiring a woman to do it.
“Battle of the Sexes” is out Friday in limited release.