In the 1970s, following on the emerging feminist movement, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), the women’s number-one-ranked player, fought for equal pay for the female players. She and her fellow players broke away and formed their own female-only tour in order to compete and show that women’s tennis was a viable draw. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), an eternal hustler, saw opportunity in this division and concocted a plan to drum up publicity and, most importantly, money for a battle of the sexes.
While the film tells the story of the actual tennis match and the lead up to it, it also covers what was happening in both King and Riggs’ lives at the time. King, who was married at the time, was discovering her awakening lesbianism, while Riggs was trying to hold his family together in the face of his compulsive gambling. However, while the film as a whole is a feel-good movie and quite heartwarming at the end, these aspects are used for dramatic effect, but then kind of left behind as the match looms. Billie Jean King’s lesbianism especially is simply swept under the rug in a postscript. Her personal journey is the most compelling aspect of the film and I would have liked to have seen it given some more backstory. She meets hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) and suddenly is exploring her sexuality, but we never really get a hint that this was in her background prior to this, even when Marilyn asks her about it. It just felt odd, like the filmmakers were simply cutting to the chase, but I felt this important element should have gotten a greater focus. I also wanted to see a little more drama on the ladies’ tour’s side. The tour seems to go a little too smoothly and I have a feeling there were many more hardships than were depicted on screen. The subject matter also felt a bit less like a feature motion picture and more like a TV-movie—a well-produced HBO-type TV-movie, but a TV-movie nonetheless.
Despite these quibbles, I really did enjoy the film and was touched by Stone’s depiction of Billie Jean King’s journey. She really shines here. Carell also does a great job at providing comic relief, but also in showing how being that comic relief in real life affected his home life. Elisabeth Shue does a nice job as his wife, Priscilla, as does Riseborough as King’s lover, Marilyn. I also enjoyed Austin Stowell as Billie Jean’s husband, Larry. He does a great job showing the conflict of knowing that his wife is changing, but still supporting her in her career. Bill Pullman does a good job here as the antagonist, Jack Kramer, former player and the head of the tennis league the ladies boycott. Natalie Morales is also really good as Rosie Casals, another player and friend of Billie Jean. However, aside from the two leads, the highest praise has to go to Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming, who are great and hilarious. Silverman plays Gladys Heldman, a friend of Billie Jean who helps the women start their own tour and find sponsorship from Virginia Slims cigarettes. Cumming plays Cuthbert “Ted” Tinling, a clothing designer who designs the ladies’ tennis dresses and becomes a friend to Billie Jean. He shares a very poignant scene with Stone at the film’s conclusion. Both actors light up the screen when they appear.
Overall, Battle of the Sexes is a fine film that’s only missing a few elements to make it a must-see, but while it’s an entertaining watch, it isn’t one you need to rush out to the theater to see. It feels more at home on something like HBO and you may want to watch it there. That’s not to say it isn’t worthy of checking out in the theater, but if you’re going to spend your hard-earned on a movie, it should be something like Blade Runner 2049.