With “Battle of the Sexes,” directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton don’t just detail an old pseudo-event. They ace a time period, taking us back to the 1970s when equality in tennis wasn’t a given.
Using the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs match as their trophy, they show how women struggled to get equal pay even though they were drawing as many spectators as the men. King (Emma Stone) and her fellow players pulled away, created their own tour and got the men to take notice.
One in particular – the 55-year-old Riggs (Steve Carell) – was intrigued enough to issue a challenge: a match that would net the winner $100,000.
King saw it for what it was worth – a sideshow – but she thought it might be able to nudge promoters into upping their prize money.
Contrasting the lifestyles (the men enjoyed a country-club atmosphere, the women had to share motel rooms), Faris and Dayton set the stage nicely, before pulling back the curtain and smashing some images. Riggs wasn’t just a former champion. He was a compulsive gambler who had problems at home. His much wealthier wife had grown tired of his habits and wanted a divorce.
King, meanwhile, realized she was gay after having a weekend tryst with a hairdresser.
With those stories swirling – ones that could easily affect their careers – both knew a lot was on the line with the match.
Because we see King so much, Stone is held to a higher standard. She attempts the tennis pro’s speech pattern and gait but there’s a vulnerability that never seemed part and parcel of King’s life. She’s conflicted; Stone makes sure it shows.
Carell paints a less gregarious picture of Riggs than we remember. He’s bold when a camera appears, timid when he’s left alone.
“Battle of the Sexes” revels in the look and the feel of the era, giving Alan Cumming a nice turn as the designer eager to affect the day’s fashions.
Sarah Silverman is good, too, as the always-smoking Gladys Heldman, making deals right and left without breaking a sweat.
While Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) was a threat to King’s No. 1 status, she comes off as a bit of a stiff here, folding when she plays Riggs; boastful whenever she’s around the other tennis players.
If there’s an underdeveloped character, it’s Larry King (Austin Stowell). Bland – and in many cases, used – he seems like the saddest figure of all: a man who stood by a history-making athlete, learned the truth and just walked away. Although a closing card says Billie Jean and Larry remained close, the film never indicates what happened to his career. Because it was so intertwined with hers, it’d be interesting to learn how he regrouped.
The match, dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, seems slower than most. But it has the highs needed to pump the fists and get behind a game that always seemed so insular.
It’s a fun look back at the past and a telling view of a sport built on love.