For those who prefer flesh-and-blood super heroes to the comic-book variety, “Battle of the Sexes” offers a real-life wonder woman saga with the power to educate and inspire, focusing on the drama that went down both on-court and off when Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs challenged ladies tennis world champion Billie Jean King to a boys-against-girls exhibition match. The outcome is widely known, but the backstory proves boisterously entertaining — and incredibly well-suited to the current climate, as King was both fighting for her gender and exploring her sexuality in 1973, when the widely publicized face-off happened.
Stepping up their game considerably, “Little Miss Sunshine” duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct this perfectly cast crowd-pleaser, which reteams them with Steve Carell, who dons sideburns and a bad wig to play the 55-year-old Riggs — but is otherwise nicely matched to the extravagant gambling man’s larger-than-life persona. Still, it’s King whom nearly everyone will be rooting for here, especially since the 29-year-old was facing off against a kind of chauvinism that hasn’t necessarily gone away, and thoroughly modern “La La Land” star Emma Stone seems uncannily well-suited to the part. She’s an actress who generally seems out of place in period movies — but is just right to play a woman so far ahead of her time.
She fires the first salvo in the eponymous battle of the sexes after reading that the male players will be competing for a cash prize eight times that of the women’s — a discovery that inspires her and business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to burst into an exclusive all-male club and confront the man they deem responsible: retired tennis champ turned USLTA honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, who sounds eerily convinced of the character’s Stone Age convictions). When Kramer refuses to make things equal, King announces her plans to form a rival league — what would become the Women’s Tennis Assn. — wooing the sport’s best lady athletes to her cause, even if it means taking a major pay cut up front.
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Eventually, Heldman manages to book Virginia Slims as a sponsor for the WTA circuit, and while the cigarette brand’s “You’ve come a long way, baby” tagline suits the new league’s women’s-lib attitude, it doesn’t necessarily apply to the nearly half-century since. What makes “Battle of the Sexes” so compelling today isn’t how obsolete the era’s chauvinist attitudes were, but rather how little things have changed, both in sports and the world at large.
King’s coming out — if only to herself and her dreamboat husband (Austin Stowell, looking like Scooby-Doo’s hunky blond friend Fred) — occupies a significant portion of the film, shining a light on more than just the conservativeness of the era, but the near-impossibility gay athletes faced (and still face) in being true to their identities, lest they lose sponsorships and perhaps even their place on the team.
Meanwhile, Carell’s character serves as an almost clownish mouthpiece for old-school chauvinist views, as Riggs goes on television to promote the match by spouting that women belong in the kitchen or the bedroom, and insisting that he can beat any female player on the court. He’s naturally competitive, to the extent that he’s attending therapy and Gamblers Anonymous meetings to calm the habit. But mostly, he wants to get out of the emasculation of his own marriage: Ever since tying the knot with the wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), Bobby has been stuck working a boring office job — and he sees this match as a way to resurrect his celebrity. And he’s not wrong, adopting the men-on-top routine as a kind of shtick for those pre-politically correct times.
As recent events in Charlottesville, Va., have demonstrated, when a public figure starts to joke about such things, it allows those with far scarier convictions to relax their own filters, and suddenly, the national discourse has swung into ugly and entirely inappropriate territory — which Dayton and Faris don’t shy away from depicting, and which should give the film added resonance this fall (though it almost certainly would’ve been a full-on zeitgeist phenomenon had the country elected its first woman president).
Though depicted as faithful, Riggs is actively deceptive about his extracurricular betting, creating intriguing but only half-explored tensions at home (at one point, Priscilla kicks him out, and Bobby finds himself sleeping on the couch of his older son, played by Pullman’s son, Lewis). In her own corner, King is facing marital problems as well, the unforeseen consequence of the entire Women’s Tennis Assn. crew getting makeovers at a Los Angeles salon, where King meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
The romantic spark between the two characters feels real, as Stone shines with the glow of someone who’s just been recognized for the first time as her true self. It’s a charged encounter that pays off a few scenes later, when Marilyn shows up at one of King’s matches. The two go out dancing and awkwardly find their way back to her room, where they share a bed. The love scene that follows is awkwardly intercut with domestic trouble on Riggs’ end — not for the first time, either.
It’s a shame that, however much better conceived “Battle of the Sexes” feels than Dayton and Faris’ two earlier features (credit for which must go in part to “Slumdog Millionaire” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy), the transitions between the two rivals’ storylines are never elegant (blame for which must also go partly to Beaufoy). Still, a smooth back-and-forth volley is the least you’d expect from a movie about tennis.
There’s not much actual gameplay in the movie, which is probably for the best. The film runs more than two hours as it is, and it’s more about the long game — King’s determination to get equal rights for women players — than the fate of any one match. Even so, there is a same-sex rivalry with Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) within the Virginia Slims Circuit that provides yet another intriguing subplot. And Alan Cumming also pops up as the league’s fashion designer, Ted, who vocalizes some of the challenges facing closet gays at the time.
Frankly, it’s surprising just how many facets of this story there are to explore, and “Battle of the Sexes” does so in such a way that should appeal to both audiences old enough to remember and those curious to know more. Dayton and Faris honor the feel of 1973 by shooting on anamorphic 35mm film, even if handheld lensing during emotional scenes gives things a more contemporary edge. Likewise, they have fun outfitting their characters in period costumes and tennis uniforms, but resist going overboard on production design (which is more than could be said for “Little Miss Sunshine”). Much of the retro energy derives from the soundtrack, which includes cues such as “Crimson and Clover” and “Rocket Man” — but not Elton John’s 1977 song “Philadelphia Freedom,” which he dedicated to King. Only in tennis do all the greatest battles start with the words “love all.”