In 1973, when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the heavily hyped cross-gender tennis match billed as “the battle of the sexes” and televised to an audience of 90 million viewers, I was a small child with little understanding of and less interest in the sport. But I have a clear memory of being invested in the outcome of the game, which was the talk of the elementary school playground (and everywhere else) that fall. Riggs, a 55-year-old former Wimbledon winner turned tireless self-promoter, had beaten the world’s top-ranked female player, Margaret Court, a few months earlier in a blowout exhibition game that became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.” He’d spent the summer lording it over the entire female sex in grand showboating style, dispensing incendiary quotes to the press to whip up excitement and acrimony before the match: “If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be the No. 1 pig.” “The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot.” He was a ’70s hustler in the style of Evel Knievel, almost self-mocking in his deliberate obnoxiousness, but to my 7-year-old self he seemed the epitome of the grown-up schoolyard bully, and like every other girl I knew, I longed to see him destroyed.
What I couldn’t have known at that age was the resonance Riggs’ remarks carried at that particular moment in history. 1973 was the year of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and the year after the passage of Title IX, the federal law that banned discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs, including sports. American gender relations were changing quickly, dramatically, and irrevocably. Riggs’ sexist goads were a symbolic effort to stand astride that change and yell “Stop!” As for King’s acceptance of his condescending challenge, that too was overdetermined by prior events. Having been kicked out of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association several years earlier for insisting on equal pay for women, King became a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, only months before agreeing to the match with Riggs. Remembering the event many years later, King makes clear that, even at the time, she was keenly aware of the historical stakes: “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect the self-esteem of all women.”
These events get compressed and streamlined in Battle of the Sexes, a brisk and cheerful biopic directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the husband-and-wife team behind the 2006 indie crowd-pleaser Little Miss Sunshine. The fiercely competitive, inwardly uncertain King (Emma Stone) is the film’s main protagonist, but the filmmakers are also sympathetic to Riggs (Steve Carell), who comes off as a publicity-hungry clown more than a mean-spirited creep, even if his uninterrogated sexism is 100 percent genuine. (In real life, King and Riggs would become friends after their famous match, remaining in touch until his death in 1995.)
Stone and Carell both give big, winning movie-star performances, even if they can’t quite be said to disappear into their roles. (Stone was replaced by a double in the tennis scenes, and neither has especially transformed their appearances, though Carell does sport some charmingly crooked false teeth.) As a sports movie, it must be said that Battle of the Sexes is distinctly underwhelming. There are relatively few scenes that take place on a tennis court at all and only one Rocky-style training montage, which cuts between King’s diligent physical and mental preparation and Riggs’ diligent hamming for the cameras (sometimes while clad in a dress and bonnet or wielding an oversized novelty racket). After all the publicity-laden buildup, the climactic match—which King won handily and without any major dramatic twists—passes in a flash. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine what the filmmakers could have done to add suspense to a game whose outcome is already so widely known.
Dayton and Faris (and their screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who scripted Slumdog Millionaire) choose instead to focus on the extra-athletic elements of the story: King’s distant if loving marriage to her promoter, Larry (Austin Stowell); Riggs’ troubled union with his independently wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue); and most of all the covert affair Billie Jean embarks on with the team’s hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). On tour with the WTA, Marilyn and Billie Jean begin, with great tentativeness on the inexperienced Billie’s part, to fall in love—a secret known to most of the team, including a gay tennis-dress designer played by Alan Cumming. But Billie Jean continues to hide the romance from her husband, though it’s clear from early on that on some level he knows, in the way spouses both knew and didn’t in those closeted times not so long ago.
This same-sex romantic subplot is both the movie’s most promising and ultimately most disappointing element. In real life, Marilyn, after a yearslong relationship with King, wound up outing the tennis star in the press in a lawsuit for what was then still called “palimony,” causing a scandal and losing King many major endorsement deals. There’s no hint of that eventual bitterness—or of any potential negativity—in Battle of the Sexes’ lesbian love scenes, which show the women’s first days of courtship in a golden PG-13 light, all silhouetted kisses and above-the-waist button fumbles. Finding your sexual identity, empowering and liberating though it may be, isn’t discovering a baby unicorn. Stone and Riseborough are magnetic performers, but I would have believed more in the connection between these two women if, in addition to gazing longingly at each other across heteros-only dance floors, they occasionally had an argument or some real down-and-dirty sex.
Battle of the Sexes breaks little new ground as either a sports film or a lesbian romance, but it’s lively, funny, and, if you’re unlucky enough to be a feminist in 2017, vicariously wish-fulfilling. The period costumes by Mary Zophres are aces, as is the period soundtrack, with Elton John’s “Rocket Man” playing a key role at one uplifting moment. A period detail that’s just as well-evoked, if less charming, is the ambient toxic sexism. “She walks like a man,” observes one TV commentator during the big match, while another helpful mansplainer suggests that, if she’d grow out her hair and lose those glasses, Billie Jean might even be pretty. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” reads a promotional T-shirt worn by one of King’s colleagues on the women’s tour. In the context of this movie, the old Virginia Slims slogan seems both accurate and inspiring. Symbolic though it was, King’s victory over Riggs did mark a significant milestone in the early days of what was then called “women’s lib.” Forty-four years after that legendary game, with the No. 1 chauvinist pig in the White House, “You’ve come a long way, baby” is starting to feel like fake news.