In 1973, the entire population of “meninists” — an unfortunate population, indeed — have placed their bets on Bobby Riggs, retired tennis superstar, to prove to humanity that men are superior to women. Riggs must beat Billie Jean King, the world’s best female tennis player, to end the dispute and silence “libbers” for good. On Sept. 20, the two faced off at the Houston Astrodome in one of the most watched tennis matches of all time. And for the goodness of humanity, Riggs was humiliated.
The victory itself, however, is the least liberating part for King; it was one stepping stone in her path to self-discovery and liberation.
“Battle of the Sexes” is an atypical historical sports movie. The match itself — something that would normally be the end goal and most captivating moment — is really just the culmination of King’s fight for equal pay. Unlike “Rocky” or “Rudy,” intense training sequences are replaced with King fighting for equality in an uphill battle against a sexist USTA administration. Simon Beaufoy’s (“Slumdog Millionaire”) tight screenplay captures the lives of King and Briggs and what led to their trivial yet historic match.
King, perfectly portrayed by Emma Stone (“La La Land”), boycotts the USTA after she’s paid an eighth the amount of her male counterparts. She then goes on a tour organized by Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, “Wreck it Ralph”), founder of World Tennis Magazine, featuring other women tennis stars joining her efforts. For Riggs (Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”), a pervasive gambling addiction and crumbling marriage catalyze his return to the public eye. He was akin to fellow tennis showman John McEnroe, with less emphasis on courtside outbursts and more on his eccentric demeanor and knack for self promotion. Although the match itself is only a fraction of the movie, King and Riggs are perfect foils: her poise and grace contrasts his bombastic eccentrics.
Both Stone and Carell’s performances are dead-on replications. Every moment feels like you’re watching King and Riggs brought back to their respective ages in a time machine. From Riggs’s idiosyncrasies to King’s confidence, both actors deliver performances that stand out as some of their best. Carell has grown from a sitcom all-star to an actor that can mold — quite literally — into any role. His last several performances include face prosthetics so realistic it feels like you aren’t even watching the same man who once played Michael Scott on “The Office.” But it’s Stone’s potent onscreen performance that transcends “Battle of the Sexes” from being just another inspirational flick to a socially conscious, gripping tale.
Stone’s subtle facial expressions and gestures hinting at her newfound love for her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, “Birdman”) stand out as the movie’s best moments. We forget the purpose of the tour — obtaining equal pay — and are immediately drawn into their relationship. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) effortlessly show the controversy and beauty in the character’s affection; subtlety replaces grandiose cheesiness, though the movie walks a fine line between melodrama and camp.
“Battle of the Sexes” ambitiously takes on two huge tasks: LGBTQ rights and equal pay. Dayton and Faris succeed at representing both, but it ultimately feels like the two sides are missing key elements. The battle for equal pay, something that easily could be the sole plot, takes a backseat to King’s relationship with Marilyn. Then, as we’re drawn into it, the plot shifts to the King-Riggs match. Although the story is based on reality, going back-and-forth between two incredibly important themes is a lofty goal, one that isn’t quite met.
Regardless, King’s story is a triumphant display of bravery, and after over forty years, it needed to be told. In a genre where women don’t get equal representation, “Battle of the Sexes” is a clear progression.