It was only an exhibition, but the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, pitting Bobby Riggs against Billie Jean King, remains a defining event of professional tennis. Now Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) lob their Battle of the Sexes into theaters; their film combines a straightforward recounting of how the infamous match transpired with a coming-out romance and a light treatise on equal rights.
It begins about a year before, when tennis champ Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) tires of being treated unfairly by the governing league. Ssshhh, says Big Tennis: The men are stronger, more competitive, more exciting to watch, and thus should get paid more. So the female players start their own league. They’ve even got a big corporate sponsor: Virginia Slims. (In the complicated world of the 1970s, these cigarettes were pitched using feminist images and slogans — “You’ve come a long way, baby” — so a good fit for a start-up women’s league.)
As King builds up the league — and starts an on-tour affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) — former tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) hustles for promotional matches. A self-professed “male chauvinist pig,” Riggs offers to cheerfully beat the reigning women’s tennis champ in a televised match, proving that men are better athletes than women.
It’s mostly lighthearted fun. The two leads exhibit familiar character beats: Stone is sweet, toggling between tentative and quietly determined, while Carell finds the note of pathos beneath Riggs’ braying goofball. There’s a slew of other recognizable actors in smaller roles, including Sarah Silverman, as King’s tart-tongued manager; Alan Cumming, as the bitchy costumer; Bill Pullman, as the piggish pro-tennis honcho; and Elisabeth Shue, as the weary Mrs. Riggs.
The climactic match, as depicted here in wide shots, isn’t very exciting, but fortunately, the time expended on it is quite brief. Through the magic of digital filmmaking, Battle retains the event’s original commentator, well-known sports commentator Howard Cosell, who, as the match nears its inevitable conclusion, delivers the coup de grace: “The comedy has gone out of Bobby Riggs.”
Early on, King had turned down Riggs’ offer — “It’s not a match, it’s a show.” In the end, it’s both, and more. Riggs and King compete as athletes on the court, surrounded by silly pageantry, while spectators take sides in a televised proxy war between the male-dominated status quo and liberated women demanding equality.
But there’s no need for younger viewers to blow the dust off history books. Plenty of the film’s themes and critiques about sexism in athletics and the sports-media industrial complex remain applicable today. And as recent events, such as Kaepernick’s knee, have proved, sports and larger issues are forever getting entangled, and media loves nothing more than blowing it up into a “defining” us-vs.-them battle. Play on.