As grudge matches go, the stakes could not have been higher. At 29, Billie Jean King was the top-ranked woman tennis player in the world, making waves on the pro circuit by demanding promoters offer women players the same prize money as male players.
Bobby Riggs was a 55-year-old former tennis champ, gambling addict, and shameless self-promoting media hustler. When he challenged her to a duel on the tennis court in 1973, the whole world was watching.
It was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” a symbolic milestone in the then-burgeoning women’s movement. And now, their match-up comes to the big screen in Battle of the Sexes, a thoughtful and entertaining movie about gender, identity, politics, and celebrity at a pivotal cultural moment in American history. Written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), it was directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton—whose first film, Little Miss Sunshine, demonstrated their skill at developing sympathetic characters and tuning into the subtle absurdities of life.
In 1973, women were burning their bras, and the word “feminism” was entering the lexicon—although uppity women who were advocating for radical things like equal rights and equal pay were more often referred to by the derogatory epithet “women’s libbers.” Billie Jean (a terrific Emma Stone) drops out of a United States Lawn Tennis Association tour when smug promoter and ex-champ Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) refuses to pay the women players as much as their male counterparts. (Men are “more exciting,” he says, with families to support.)
Billie Jean starts her own tour with eight other female champions, in cahoots with World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), who finds them a sponsor: Virginia Slims cigarettes. (Of the infamous slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”) The publicity generated by the tour attracts gadfly Bobby (Steve Carell), who, since his heyday in the late 1940s, has been living off high-profile exhibition matches—and the inherited income of his wealthy wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).
Billie Jean rejects Bobby’s first offer. Long-married to her college sweetheart, she’s too busy coping with her sudden, intense attraction to Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), here portrayed as a hairdresser who comes on tour with the female pros. (Introduced in a montage of slyly erotic close-ups and sidelong glances in the mirror as Marilyn cuts her hair.) But when Bobby defeats Billie Jean’s rival, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in an exhibition match, and talks a lot of trash about the male being “the superior animal,” Billie Jean instructs her manager-husband, “Call the bozo. Tell him it’s on.”
Indeed it is. Bobby thrives on the media frenzy he creates, parading across TV screens with a squad of nubile cheerleaders, and declaring himself the defender of “male chauvinist pig” values. Carell plays him with gusto, in all his gross excess, and yet there’s unexpected charm in his brash exuberance, vowing to “put the show back in chauvinism!” or exhorting his fellow Gambler Anonymous inmates that they wouldn’t have a gambling “problem” if they learned how to win.
But despite the hi-jinks, the subject of gender inequality remains serious throughout. (Look at the paternalistic way Howard Cosell—his image from the actual broadcast, inserted via CGI—clutches tennis pro and co-commentator Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) in a kind of hammerlock while calling the match for a worldwide TV audience. He wouldn’t try that trick if his “color man” were, say, John McEnroe.)
A vintage soundtrack keeps the action bubbling along, as the filmmakers remind us (in dozens of little onscreen asides) of the culture of the day, when women were chided for wearing shorts instead of fluffy little tennis dresses, and dismissed as biologically unable to handle the pressure of professional sports. But while it all seems sort of quaint now, wage disparity and piggy paternalism are still very much alive. Trailblazers like Billie Jean King deserve our thanks, and the tribute she receives in this movie. But maybe we haven’t yet come such a long way, baby, after all.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
***1/2 (out of four)
With Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, and Sarah Silverman. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 121 minutes.