Battle of the Sexes is more than just an empowerment victory lap for women and others seeking equality. It’s also a heartfelt tale of two intimate love stories — with the least surprising of the two registering the more surprising result. Oh yeah, it’s also a fantastic time capsule resurrecting the early ’70s with aplomb and a sad reminder of just how deeply chauvinistic mainstream culture used to be (and still is). Take the venerated sportscaster Howard Cossell commenting in the preamble of the titular event (an ABC prime-time broadcast that was almost as big as the Super Bowl) that if tennis pro Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) lost her wire-rimmed glasses and bland bob, she might shock the world with movie star good looks. Did Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe ever get brought up for their appearance?
King by all rights was a trailblazer, the first female professional athlete to earn over $100K in a year and a reluctant feminist icon who sought more equal pay for female players who were paid “eight times” less than their male counterparts. Resolute and unwavering to pro tennis tour honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and his claim that men were the bigger draw, King quickly retorts that the women sell just as many tickets at the same price. Solid logic that gets brushed aside.
That’s when King and tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) decide to create their own tennis circuit (what becomes the Virginia Slims Circuit). Kramer initially can’t believe the bluff and goes on the offensive in the media saying the idea will fail when it begins to take root. Not onscreen much, Kramer becomes the film’s de facto villain, more so than Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), the other half of the “battle,” who at age 55, an anointed tennis legend (Grand Slam winner, former No. 1 player, and tennis hall-of-famer) bored with life and addicted to gambling, reinvents himself by calling out King after her fiscal milestone. He’s a lover of the limelight and needs more than the bare-knuckle tennis matches he and his scotch-sipping cronies stage — with a handicap of course. In one deftly comical scene, Riggs has to hold a pair of Afghan dogs on leash while dodging a series of folding chair obstacles placed on his side of the court. For his troubles, he wins a Rolls Royce.
The heart of the movie, as the script written by Academy Award winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — the dynamic duo behind the infectiously offbeat Little Miss Sunshine — lies in King’s quiet personal travail and her intrepid spirit throughout. Sure, she was on top of the world, No. 1, and married to a hunky guy (Austin Stowell), but the battles she undertakes against well-fleeced men of power and the woman who unlocks her heart, hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), bring stiff and unexpected challenges especially at a time when any modicum of LGBT acceptance was light years away. Exposure would mean certain crucifixion in the media and barren sponsorship. It’s a buttoned-lipped burn that registers slowly, yet surely, in Stone’s brave performance. The actress so good in Birdman and La La Land finds another gear, making the most of her center court moment. With wide eyes and tremulous lips, she seizes on King’s uncertainty and cause with deep, empathetic care — you root for Stone the actress almost as much as the persona she’s embodying.
King initially turned Riggs down and she might not have given him a second chance had he not turned to her rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) who still holds the record for most singles wins and dispatched her with such chauvinistic showmanship glee. “Women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom,” becomes his boorish mantra. Through it all, Carrell keeps Riggs likably buffoonish. You feel as if it’s just an act (and Kramer’s always in the wings to upstage him on the deep-seeded sexist side of things) and he’s offset by his caring yet fed up wife (Elizabeth Shue) who wants him to stop gambling and grow up.
Of course, the main event in the Astrodome eventually does come and you can see Carrell and the crew drooling over the fun to be had with all of Riggs’s pregame antics — posing nude, dressing up as Little Bo Beep for media sessions, and so on. The cinematic rendering of the match, especially the choreography of the volleys, is crisp, realistic, and resolutely clap worthy. In the end, there’s triumph on both sides of the net. The world’s eyes are widened some too as folks like Kramer (as portrayed) and his ilk (Trump certainly a member of the tribe) bite down hard on their back teeth. The whimsical tone that Dayton and Faris chose to intone becomes a satirical reflection of the time that’s also all too applicable in the now.