In the world of sports movies, tennis isn’t a sport that’s highlighted very often. Sure we could all perhaps name one or two movies that feature tennis matches or famous players, but tennis has nothing on bigger sports like football or basketball. It’s easy to see why. With no contact between the players, a slower game, and one that has a rather large focus on politeness, tennis doesn’t necessarily lend itself to cinematic excitement. But “The Battle of the Sexes” does. One of the most watched tennis matches of all time, and probably the still best known tennis match today, the showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is just begging for a cinematic adaptation.
Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) in 1973 was one of, if not the single best female tennis player in the world. King was also a vocal activist for equal rights for women, including pay for the female tennis players equal to that of the male players. The movie starts off with Billie Jean King, along with tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) forming a women’s only tennis tour, named the Virginia Slims Circuit, in direct competition with the United States Tennis Association (though the movie doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail about it, the Virginia Slims Circuit proved to be so popular that it eventually merged with the USTA)
Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), on the other hand, was a 55-year-old, semi-retired tennis player, in 1973 who described himself as a “tennis hustler” playing on promotional matches. Riggs, leaning into his role as a pompous male chauvinist, saw a big promotional opportunity between his boisterous, sexist attitude, and King’s feminist ideals. Billie Jean King initially turns down Bobby’s proposal, not wanting to appear as a sideshow attraction, causing Bobby to turn his attention toward Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), another top female player. Bobby Riggs would go on to beat Margaret Court. This defeat caused Billie Jean King to accept the “Battle of the Sexes” challenge.
Battle of the Sexes lives and dies on the presence of its two leads, both of whom pull out remarkable performances. Stone’s portrayal of Billie Jean King may be the best bit of acting she’s produced in her career so far. Carell, likewise, doesn’t so much portray Bobby Riggs and much as he embodies the character. In both cases the actor in question is able to bring the character to life in a way that makes it easy to forget these are actors, famous actors at that, portraying these people. The highlights of the movie are the few interactions between the two tennis stars, a handful of phone calls and press conferences. These are two fantastic characters, being portrayed by actors at the top of their game. It’s almost a shame that the movie doesn’t find more time for these two characters to interact as it’s easily the part of the movie that shines the most.
Though the movie takes time to expand the backstory of both Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, it’s clear that King is the main character here. A large portion of the runtime is dedicated to King’s relationship at the time with her hairdresser. Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) was King’s first same sex partner, and a good portion of the movie takes time to explore King’s time with her, and how King was dealing with her thoughts and feelings at the time. It’s an interesting character study, but it doesn’t quite gel with the tennis portions of the story as well as the movie wants it too. The movie also provides details of the family life of Bobby Riggs at the time, though it’s minimal compared to Billie Jean King’s story. Far too often, the storyline that is headed toward the historic match feels like it’s being put on hold, to focus more on Billie Jean King’s biography. It’s an interesting story, but it gives the movie an unintended segmented feel.
Ultimately the movie does a serviceable job of putting the story of the iconic tennis match on the screen. You’re able to get the feel of what the match meant at the time and how the match was viewed. A handful of real life interviews are worked into the narrative to help give the movie a more authentic feeling. The movie is at its strongest when the tennis match is the focus, though at the end of the movie, it feels like you need a supplemental documentary of the events, to complete the story of the movie.
Tags: battle of the sexes, Emma Stone, film, movie, review, Steve Carell, Tennis