When tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) won the US Open women’s title in 1972, it’s unlikely she anticipated the changes that would follow. Her personal life, plus America’s perception of female athletes and women in general, would be impacted by her victory. With humor and empathy, “Battle of the Sexes” captures King’s ensuing match against former tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and the issues revolving around that game.
After winning the 1972 Open, King is shocked to learn that Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), head of the US Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), plans to award $12,500 to the men’s winner of the Pacific Southwest Tournament but only $1,500 to the women’s victor. Along with promoter Gladys Heldman (played with feisty wit by Sarah Silverman), King confronts Kramer.
Kramer does some mansplaining to try and justify the eight times greater pay difference. “Men are more exciting to watch” and are “the draw” are just two of his chauvinist arguments. King counters Kramer’s claims with the fact that just as many spectators pay to see women’s matches as men’s. When Kramer refuses to budge, King and the other eight pros Gladys represents, including Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), decide to boycott the USLTA. After Gladys secures the sponsorship of Virginia Slims cigarettes (known at the time for their “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” ad campaign featuring women’s equality issues), the ladies successfully create their own league.
Observing all of this, and wanting a piece of the action, is Bobby Riggs. At age 55, the former US Open and Wimbledon champ has a boring desk job courtesy of his father-in-law. Riggs endangers his marriage with constant gambling. Part of his wagering involves performing stunts while playing tennis. Riggs thinks taking on King in a battle of the sexes would be another successful venture that would also prove male superiority.
But, knowing Riggs and his antics, King wants to avoid a spectacle. She has a title to defend and a personal conflict to resolve. Although she’s married, King finds herself attracted to hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). When the two decide to explore their feelings, King must confront her own sexuality and her resulting conflicted emotions.
Simon Beaufoy’s script deftly captures the events surrounding the match. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton successfully bring back the early 1970s when President Nixon was congratulating King on her Open title and sportscaster Howard Cosell was pontificating for ABC. Cosell and Casals’ actual play by play during the eventual match between King and Riggs adds authenticity to the action. The costume designs by Mary Zophres recapture the innovative tennis outfits designed by “Ted” Tinling (Alan Cumming) which, along with King’s blue suede Adidas court shoes, brought color to the court and a shock to the tennis establishment.
In approaching King and Marilyn’s romance, sound editor and designer Ai-Ling Lee creatively manipulates the film soundtrack. When the two women first meet at the salon, and later at a nightclub, all the ambient noise is eliminated. This leaves only the women’s voices against soft music. The result is an emphasis on the sensory impact of the moment, viewed from King’s perspective.
Both Stone and Carell put in solid performances as the two tennis pros. Stone’s thoughtful and intelligent King uses her naturally competitive spirit to stand up for her rights and to advance those of her colleagues. Yet, King is also vulnerable, as seen in her private interactions with Marilyn and King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell).
Carell successfully pulls off presenting Riggs’ jester-like personality while avoiding making his character a laughing-stock. Riggs’ real-life stunts were outlandish and he excelled at dishing out male-chauvinist insults. Yet, Beaufoy’s script and Carell’s performance manage to make Riggs, nicknamed “the mouth,” an empathetic figure. As his wife (Elizabeth Shue) points out, Riggs has never really grown up. The audience sees him struggle (although not very hard since he won’t acknowledge any problem) with his gambling while unsuccessfully relating to his wife and adult son (Lewis Pullman). Riggs’ universe is all about him. Since retiring from professional tennis, he has no successful position in society and thinks it’s through stunts that he can make a name for himself again.
Riggs is hardly the film’s only face of misogyny. While Riggs is brash, Pullman’s Kramer is smooth and polite while claiming “at the top of the chain it’s a man’s game.” Interview clips of athletes and celebrities choosing sides before the match reveal additional prejudices.
The release of “Battle of the Sexes” is very timely. While the film lets audiences take a look back at the 1970s movement for women’s equality and the resulting resistance, it also parallels issues still being debated in America- equal pay for equal work; respect; equal opportunities regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation; the LGBTQ community; and criticism of women in leadership roles.
As King tells a reporter, she doesn’t want to be better than men, she just wants to be considered equal. Or, as she asks Kramer in another scene, “Why is it a problem when we want just a little of what you’ve got?” That’s the bigger question, and it’s still seeking an answer.