There’s a moment near the end of Battle of the Sexes where Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) turns towards a reporter and corrects a statement. “I never said women were better than men; I just think we deserve more. Is that too much to ask?” King goes on to ask the male reporter if he would have a problem with his wife, sister, or mother being better than him at something, and he says no. Game, set, match!
That is the overall tone of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ new film, which chronicles the legendary match between King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. Two players on opposite sides of the career mountain-one coming into her own with the other barely grasping notoriety-Riggs and King needed each other more than they knew at the time.
What makes Battle of the Sexes a quality film is that it knows where the important part of the story lies-and it’s not on a tennis court. Sure, the tennis scenes, especially the final match between the two players, are well-staged and filmed, but it’s the moments between the games and after the big matches that carry the resounding impact in this movie.
As she was becoming a star, King was battling personal issues and carrying the boulder of women’s rights on her shoulders. She was married to Larry King (Austin Stowell), but she was falling in love with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a hair dresser she meets in California while on tour. She was playing the best tennis of her career while broadcasters and retired male players (Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer among them) said women didn’t deserve to be on the same platform as men in the sport.
Enter Riggs. A 55 year old former star of the game who had a laundry list of problems, gambling at the top of the list, but mostly putting himself over everyone else in his life, including his wife (Elizabeth Shue) and kids. What he saw in a potential match with first Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) and King was a chance to not shoot down the idea of women in tennis, but keep his name above water.
What followed was the most popular sporting event to ever broadcast on live television, but also one of the most important battles for women’s rights on and off the court.
Stone is phenomenal in this movie, fully investing herself in the physical appearance and ability of King, as well as her emotions and struggles. This is a complete performance that easily tromps her Oscar winning work in La La Land. Playing every shade of King wasn’t an easy task, but the facial resemblance gets your attention right away, before the emotional recognition comes in later. She finds a way to be magnificent in a tough role without makeup or grandstanding.
Carell is an underrated actor who can blend comedy and drama better than most in Hollywood, and he beautifully portrays Riggs as a man of instant charm but everlasting sorrow. There’s a burning need to be relevant in Bobby Riggs, and Carell finds his way to that decrepit location with a blend of charisma and depth. While he was fighting to keep his own name above water, Riggs was unknowingly helping King cement her own.
Without Stone and Carell’s work, this is a TV movie on ESPN. They make it great and worth the price of admission.
The rest of the cast is fine if not memorable, with Sarah Silverman’s promoter landing some very funny lines throughout the film and Alan Cumming bringing his joyful talents to the fashion designer of the women’s circuit.
Should the film be showered with Oscars? No. Is Battle of the Sexes an important film with great lead performances? Yes.
The secret power of this film is telling a wonderful story at a time where women’s rights were still climbing a mountain and daring to be championed. These days, this tale still carries a lot of weight. Without being overly showy, the film is easy to watch, enjoy, and appreciate.
While not a film that screams awards, Battle of the Sexes is a relevant cinematic treat.