Film Review: Battle of the Sexes

Emma Stone shines in this affecting, scattered look at the famed 1973 intergender tennis match

On September 19, Emma Stone walked into The Late Show with Stephen Colbert holding a book. Usually when stars waltz into talk shows, they’re not holding anything — not purses, not coffees, not umbrellas. They have people who do that stuff for them. So when Emma Stone carries a book, it’s not by accident. When that book is Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, it’s even less likely that she was just leafing through it on the way over. It’s possible that Stone wanted to get the thing signed — the former Secretary of State was a guest of Colbert’s for that show, as well — but that entrance was meant to be photographed, with the book’s title turned carefully out. She carried it to make a statement, and not one that’s hard to read. It wasn’t subtle, and she didn’t care. See also: Battle of the Sexes.

That’s not a dig — well, not a big one, anyway. Under the lively direction of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Battle of the Sexes is an effervescent biopic and a compassionate depiction of sexual awakening, as well as a mostly effective sports movie and a broad, if well-intentioned, statement film. If that sounds like a lot for one two-hour movie to tackle, that’s because it is, and the film suffers for it. But it’s also a very entertaining way to spend a couple hours, and if all that popcorn comes with a side of good-for-you, so much the better.

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King (Stone) has this totally bonkers idea that women deserve equal pay. When she and tennis luminary Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) discover that the tennis world’s powers-that-be (represented by Jack Kramer, Bill Pullman’s perfectly coiffed misogynist) intend to pay them 10 times less than their male counterparts, the pair opt to form the Virginia Slims tour, taking the world’s most accomplished female tennis players on the road and leaving the male establishment behind. Then Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) calls — would Billie Jean play against him for a boatload of cash, a “women’s libber” against a “chauvinist male pig”? She passes.

That’s not the end of the story, of course, because Battle isn’t really about the battle. In another example of the film’s tendency to do a few too many things at once, Battle of the Sexes is something of a dueling character study, pitting Stone’s driven King against Carell’s boisterous, secretly sad-sack Riggs. King fights for equality while confronting her own sexuality, thanks to the presence of the warm, flirtatious hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, wonderful). Riggs joyfully deals with his gambling addiction by not dealing with it, despite the fact that it’s destroying his marriage to the frustrated but nevertheless enraptured Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue). King’s a pro, Riggs a hustler. King’s conflicted, Riggs is bored. King is lonely, and so is Riggs. They’re both sad, they both love tennis, and they both know how to put on a show.

That last point can also be made about the film’s stars, two of Hollywood’s most innately appealing personalities. While they spend little of the film’s runtime together, Carell and Stone make a hell of a pair, the latter’s palpable intelligence and focus playing nimbly off the former’s engaging buffoonery. Neither is so easily summed up, of course, and it’s one of the film’s regrettable missed opportunities that Carell in particular isn’t often challenged to dig deeper into Riggs, but these are two winning, engaging performances. Along with Risenborough, they bestow the film with a substance it would otherwise lack. Stone brings an inescapable through-line of confusion, panic, and joy to the proceedings, while Carell lends Riggs a level of pathos that lessens the potency of his deeply sexist circus act. (In the press screening, a woman sitting nearby let out a loud “Ha!” as Riggs slumped sadly onto a bench, but followed it up immediately with a quiet but sincere, “aww, oh no.”)

Of the two, it’s Stone’s performance that emerges as the more noteworthy, but then she also has a lot more to work with. Of all of the different films contained within this one, Battle is best described as a Billie Jean King biopic, and that’s the best-developed thread and, unsurprisingly, the most successful. Like the best of its kind, it focuses on one chapter in the life of its subject, a sexual awakening that runs parallel to her fights for equality and fancy trophies. Particularly successful is an early scene between King and Margaret in a hair salon; without so much as a glimpse of skin, it’s sexier than most of what you’ll see onscreen this year. In that scene, as in others, Stone frames King as a bundle of raw nerves, stumbling through an unexplored emotional landscape, wrestling with guilt and shame, love and euphoria in roughly equal measures. But for both King and the film, love has to take a backseat to tennis, especially when the fight for equality is at stake.

It’s in that fight where the film finally stumbles in a more noticeable way. Dayton, Faris, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) are good with the personal, great with the humorous, and terrific at capturing the era (just wait for an airport sprint to coin-fed TV chairs), but they’re lacking when it comes to the sports movie. The climactic match lacks suspense, and it’s not because one visit to Wikipedia will tell you who won. It’s filmed like a televised match, with each serve and volley clearly captured. It’s easy to follow, but what matters here isn’t who scores when and how, but what it means, how it feels, and what it does to these people we’ve been following for two hours.

Like most of the film, it’s likely to leave you just a little unsatisfied, skipping lightly across the surface rather than plunging beneath. But if Battle of the Sexes is more than a little slight in places, it more than makes up for its shortcomings through sheer entertainment value. There’s a great supporting cast, notably Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales, and the aforementioned (and terrific) Silverman; there’s a lively pace, a sense of fun, and a solid hero’s journey; there are giggle-inducing costumes, one solid piece of Ricardo Montalban footage, and a pretty great credits anthem from Sara Bareilles. But with the exception of King’s well-developed relationships, it’s hard not to wish the film explored its territory more closely, especially in the realm of the political.

One terrific scene between Kramer and King is the exception that proves the rule. King lays out the nature of her objection to Kramer’s involvement in the exhibition match, and the difference between Riggs’ brand of misogyny and Kramer’s: Riggs is “a clown,” he’s not serious, it’s all about the show. Kramer, though, is the boss who never really hears you when you speak, the boyfriend who wants your life to exist on his terms, the guy who tells you to smile, the politician who thinks he knows what’s best for your body, the friend who decides he’s been “friend-zoned.” “When we dare to want a little bit more,” King says, “just a little bit of what you got, that’s what you can’t stand.” Kramer doesn’t deny it. 

The clown is dangerous, but he’s dangerous because of what he says to the guy across the table, the guy who cuts the checks, the guy who’s a perfect gentleman. He’s dangerous because of what he makes acceptable. “Business, sports, you name it,” Kramer says. “At the very top, it’s a man’s world.”

So Emma Stone carries Hillary Clinton’s book into a television studio, making explicit what the movie mostly hints at: for all the progress we’ve made, there’s still a lot of misogyny in the world. That there are still no shortage of men willing to exploit the bigotry of others to make themselves rich, famous, powerful, or all of the above. Faris and Dayton know this; so does Stone; so did Billie Jean King. It’s to the film’s credit, and to King’s, that both this film and the tennis match on which it centers are so entertaining. The stakes are high, but if you’re going to try to change things for the better, you may as well have some fun along the way.



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