In the early-1970’s, Billie Jean King, the top female athlete in the world at the time, was challenged by 55-year-old retired pro — and self-proclaimed “chauvinist pig” — Bobby Riggs to square off against him in an exhibition tennis match that he hoped would prove once and for all that men were the superior athletes. In the superbly entertaining “Battle of the Sexes,” directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”) dramatize that event as well as the circumstances that led the world champion tennis player to accept such a ridiculous offer.
Even before that match, the film shows us that King (played here by Emma Stone) was already at war: fed up with being paid only a fraction as much as her male counterparts for a major tournament, she orchestrates a boycott of the tennis association, at the time led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). With the help of her manager, Gladys Heldman (a brassy, scene-stealing Sarah Silverman), King organizes her own touring competition exclusively for female players and even secures the sponsorship of Virginia Slims (inspiring an amusing running gag in which Heldman cajoles the all-star female athletes throughout their tour to start lighting up at every opportunity). Determined to advance the cause and get herself and her fellow female athletes the pay they’re worth, King hopes in the process to help women’s sports achieve the respect it so rightly deserves.
As King’s star continues to rise, the life of Briggs (Steve Carell) is coming apart at the seams, and his gambling addiction has left his long-suffering wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, quite good in an underdeveloped role), at the end of her rope. A born huckster, Briggs sees challenging the reigning champion more as a way to make a quick buck than to prove any deeply held belief. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) follows King and Briggs in parallel narratives leading all the way to their showdown at the Houston Astrodome in front of an estimated audience of 90 million television viewers.
Another even more compelling drama, all the while, is playing out in the background: The star player unexpectedly finds herself attracted to liberated hairdresser Marilyn (a lovely Andrea Riseborough). Stone and Riseborough have a sweet and palpable chemistry together, and their burgeoning romance is responsible for some of the film’s strongest material.
At a time when homosexuality wasn’t accepted, King risks everything — both professionally and personally — to explore a side of her she’d long fought to repress. Caught in the middle is her handsome, square-jawed husband Larry (Austin Stowe), who even as he begins to realize his marriage is in dire straights, puts his own feelings aside to help his wife achieve success.
Beaufoy’s treatment of that character is indicative of his overall approach and the way he avoids turning Riggs into a cartoonish villain. The story’s real antagonist is Pullman’s Jack Kramer, standing in for all the suit-wearing white men who act as the gatekeepers to progress, smiling while they tell you that’s just the way things are. King sees through him right away, “Bobby’s just a clown. With you, it’s for real.”
Stone is sensational, and she turns in one of the strongest performances of her career (possibly even better than the one that earned her an Oscar just last year). King is a complicated character, but Stone underplays the part in compelling ways. Carell is also good, utilizing his natural affability and emphasizing Riggs’ overt clownishness over any true maliciousness.
Beyond its impeccable production design, Linus Sandgren’s photography (shot on 35-mm film) provides a vintage aesthetic that makes the film feel as though it might have been a product of the time in which it’s set. Aiding considerably is a rousing score from composer Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight”).
“Battle of the Sexes” dramatizes an infamous historical matchup that pitted a capable woman against a buffoonish, showboating man. (Why does that sounds so familiar?) Anchored by wonderful performances (particularly from Stone), the film is a winning crowd-pleaser, albeit one with a sad but undeniable relevance to today.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the J.D. Salinger biopic “Rebel in the Rye,” starring Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Spacey.