Sharing a name – and a subject – with the excellent 2013 documentary, this Battle of the Sexes is a fictional retelling of the legendary tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. In a nutshell, BJK – frustrated by the low levels of pay for the women’s game – had formed the Women’s Tennis Association, a breakaway union that took women from the official circuit and created their own separate competitions, with reasonable prize money and a whole lot less misogyny and condescension. Far from being the financial disaster the male establishment had predicted, the WTA attracted crowds and sponsorship.
Against the background of this comes Bobby Riggs, a former Grand Slam champ, declaring that he – fifty something, out of shape, only playing jokey, trick-based tennis for bets – could still beat the women’s number one on the court. The resulting challenge match – well, matches to be exact – forms the climax of this neatly observed film. As it happens, as good as James Erskine’s and Zara Hayes’ documentary was, this very highly entertaining, neatly observed interpretation adds a little more background, particularly when it comes to Riggs’ motivation.
A self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig, there was perhaps more to Riggs (played brilliantly by Steve Carell) than one might presume, with a gambling problem leading to a faltering domestic situation and much friction between Riggs and his wife (Elisabeth Shue so good to see her back on the big screen). While his self-acknowledged misogyny was undoubtedly real, there’s a little more complexity to the character, and Carell actually brings a little sympathy to the role. At the same time, however, while fleshing out this side of things, Battle of the Sexes doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to inequality of the tennis circuit or women’s sport in general. The nature of the challenge match itself – jokey to some, deadly serious to BJK and her colleagues on the WTA tour – is adeptly handled.
Even more remarkably, at the same time the film is confidently balancing such potential pitfalls, Battle of the Sexes also portrays Billie Jean’s tentative acceptance of her sexuality, and her burgeoning relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough, on exceptional form) and doesn’t put a foot wrong in the process.
The reasons for this are, basically, obvious. Simon Beaufoy’s script is terrific, and co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton keep everything on an even keel but, at the end of the day, this is Emma Stone’s film. It’s a performance of great subtlety and control that provides the counter balance to Carell’s more comedic obnoxiousness, but is also so much more than that. It’s standout acting in a film that’s dotted with fine work, from the likes of Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming and, particularly, Sarah Silverman’s portrayal of WTA founder and promoter Gladys Heldman. In short, if you’ll forgive an obvious bit of wordplay, Battle of the Sexes is ace.