“Battle of the Sexes” is a mild but entertaining comedy drama which closely looks at an amusing sports event between two contrasting real-life figures. Although it sometimes feels a bit unfocused, the movie works as an engaging tale while supported well by two good performances at its center, and its sharp points on feminism and sexism are relevant considering that our society still needs more changes for gender equality.
It is 1973, and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is at the height of her professional tennis career, but then there comes a big matter she is going not to overlook. Although her and other female tennis players have been as popular as male tennis players, the top prize for female tennis players in an upcoming tournament is only $1,500 while the top prize for male tennis players is no less than $12,000, and King and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the founder of World Tennis magazine who has also been the main supporter of King and other female tennis players, are certainly angry about that. They promptly confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who is the executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), for protesting about that, but Kramer simply disregards their protest as casually expressing his sexist view, so King and Heldman decide to form a separate tennis tour for female tennis players.
Of course, it is initially not so easy for King and other female tennis players to do their separate tennis tour. Because of the lack of sponsorship, they have to sign a contract while receiving only one dollar from Heldman, and they are also suspended by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). Fortunately, they soon get the sponsorship from Philip Morris thanks to Heldman’s diligent efforts, and then everything goes well for them as they continue their tour around a number of cities in US. Yes, it is a bit weird for us to see feminism being sponsored by a cigarette company, but they had to grasp any option available to them, didn’t they?
Meanwhile, King finds herself in an unexpected romantic relationship with a hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). As Barnett works on King’s hair, something sparks between them, and they come to spend more time with each other. Because she is married, King naturally feels conflicted about her growing feelings toward Barnett; she does not want to hurt her faithful husband Larry (Austin Stowell), but she continues her relationship with Barnett anyway, and their relationship soon becomes an open secret to everyone around them. When Larry makes a surprise visit to his wife later, he quickly guesses what is going on between his wife and Barnett, and that eventually leads to a frank conversation between him and Barnett.
King’s story is intercut with that of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a 55-year-old former tennis star who still needs more excitement in his life. Not so surprisingly, he has a serious gambling addiction problem, and we get a small amusing moment when he wins a Rolls Royce from a silly tennis bet but has to hide that from his concerned wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who loves and cares about him a lot but has been losing her patience on him.
Watching the rise of King and other female tennis players, Riggs sees an opportunity to bring him back in spotlights. He wants to do a big public match with King for showing that he has lose none of his ability (and virility, of course), so he calls her at one night, but King flatly rejects his offer. In her view, Riggs’ proposed match is no more than a silly public stunt to promote him, and she does not want get involved with that at any chance.
However, she comes to change her mind after watching how much Riggs openly wields sexism along with many other guys including Kramer, so she decides to do a match with Riggs, who gladly accepts her challenge as boosting his ego further in public. Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay never overlooks Riggs’ unpleasant male chauvinism, but it also pays considerable attention to Riggs’ human sides, and Steve Carell’s enjoyable performance balances his character well between humor and drama. Riggs is surely a jerk full of braggadacio, but he is an understandable one at least, and Carell later has a small good moment when his character happens to have a serious conversation with his wife.
While cheerfully depicting the absurd aspects of King and Riggs’ eventual match which was held at the Houston Astrodome on September 20th, 1973, the movie also emphasizes how it was important for King and many other women out there, and Emma Stone gives a fine performance as a smart, spirited woman ready to do a necessary battle for her strong feminist belief. Although she looks a bit more plain than usual, Stone is engaging to watch as before while ably functioning as the solid human anchor of the film, and we certainly come to root for her character during the expected finale.
The supporting characters in the film are less developed in comparison, but they are played by a group of reliable performers at least. While Andrea Riseborough exudes natural charm as King’s lover, Alan Cumming is flamboyant as a substantial gay character in the film, and Sarah Silverman surely enjoys every showy moment of her character. In case of other notable performers like Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, and Bill Pullman, they are stuck with thankless roles, but they bring some life and personality to their respective characters nonetheless.
“Battle of the Sexes” is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who previously debuted with “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and then made “Ruby Sparks” (2012). Like their two previous film, the movie is funny and likable, and I especially enjoyed its authentic period atmosphere, which is effectively established right from the very beginning with its deliberately old-fashioned studio logo. While its finale could have been more focused and impactful in my inconsequential opinion, the movie does its job as much as intended, and the result is a winning crowd-pleaser I am willing to recommend.