A firestorm ignited in 1973 when retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs, a hustler and gambler looking for new prey, challenged reigning tennis queen Billie Jean King to a match to prove that a female champ was far inferior to anyone on the men’s tour — even an old-timer in his mid-50s. She turned it down at first, but after he defeated one of her chief rivals, King took on what became a virtual circus of immense proportions covered on ABC and around the world. Now that era and time have been re-created in Battle of the Sexes, a terrific new film that isn’t just about that infamous match but also equal rights and pay for women as well as the sexual identity crisis King was going through at the time.
As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), this movie is so much more than I expected as it digs a lot deeper and ends up not only as a real crowd-pleaser but also an illuminating look at one of the great athletes of all time, warts and all. It comes as no surprise that there is so much depth to the film since it is written by Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris who among other things made Little Miss Sunshine such a total delight.
The story follows King (Emma Stone) as she struggles to win equal pay for players on the Virginia Slims circuit while also dealing with her own career and a marriage to devoted husband Larry that are threatened by an affair she is having with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Meanwhile, Riggs (Steve Carell) is floundering, a former tennis powerhouse who now is resorting to low-level hustles and stunts. He comes up with the idea to challenge a top female pro and goes after King, who thinks the whole thing is a joke and turns him down. When he succeeds in cajoling her rival Margaret Court into a match, and defeating her, King has second thoughts and decides to take him up on the offer — knowing that the symbolism is so much more than just a cheap stunt. Anyone alive at the time knows the outcome, but it doesn’t really matter as the buildup and match itself are presented so suspensefully that you will be on the edge of your seat anyway.
Stone is superb, capturing King’s natural athleticism and sexual confusion, ultimately resulting in an enormously powerful and touching performance, particularly in a scene where she is left alone in the locker room and lets all the emotion of a hard-fought match come pouring out. Although doubles are used in the tennis scenes, she and Carell make it look effortless. Carell is a hoot as Riggs, capturing his spirited romp into one last 15 minutes of fame. Riseborough is excellent as Marilyn, and there is great support from Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife and Bill Pullman as tennis great Jack Kramer, who is the heavy in the movie, portrayed as a man who simply could not take women seriously on the court and battled King in her fight for equal pay.
This is one of the year’s best pictures. Producers are Danny Boyle (who was going to direct it at one time), Christian Colson and Robert Graf. Fox Searchlight releases on Friday.
Do you plan to see Battle of the Sexes? Let us know what you think.