I don’t remember the Battle of the Sexes; I was far too young for it to penetrate my consciousness at age five, or to make anyone in the suburban enclave where I grew up to have much of a stake in it. But I do remember hearing about it, and, given the time and place, that’s pretty impressive; for people like my mother and father, the idea that a tennis match — let alone a tennis match involving a woman — was evidence enough of what a big deal it was when Billie Jean King squared off against Bobby Riggs.
Of course, as anyone who has seen the new movie of the same name, let alone lived through the turbulent ’70s, knows, the match was never really meant to realistically settle whether or not men or women were superior players. Riggs, the consummate hustler, conceived the entire thing as a publicity stunt meant to line his pockets, and while he was certainly genuine in his self-confidence and his disdain for any aspect of the game that didn’t revolve around him, he was playing up his image as a male chauvinist pig to sell tickets. King, for her part, took things a bit more seriously, not because she had a particular stake in beating Riggs, or proving that she was the equal of male players on the court, but because she was dealing with the kind of institutionalized misogyny women faced every day — which, at the time, involved a very high-profile blackballing of herself and her allies who were tired of being paid a fraction of the payoff that men got for winning despite pulling in just as many fans. For Riggs, a win was just a joke, albeit one with a massive take behind it; for King, the credibility of her entire approach to the sport was on the line.
That’s the stakes of Battle of the Sexes, from the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Cinematically, it’s a pretty standard work; it hits all the beats of a sports action movie, right down to the training montages and the moment-of-victory punch. There’s not a lot that’s unexpected, which is probably to be expected from this or any other movie whose outcome is known in advance, but thanks largely to the script by British pro Simon Beaufoy, it brings out a few unexpected pleasures. There are only a few moments where the tone veers into corniness, and those are balanced out by a few bits of genuine humor and a bit of earned emotional depth. The film succeeds largely by staying in its lane; the tennis scenes aren’t spectacular, but they’re reserved for the moments that need them most, and it mostly draws its enjoyment out of the depiction of the curious clash between two forceful personalities with their attentions focused on two entirely different things.
A modest bit of work, Battle of the Sexes often comes across as a TV movie, from its production values to its low-budget, low-intensity feel; that may seem like a criticism, but it gives it a degree of comfort and familiarity that actually works in its favor. (One of the few moments that it pulls a genuinely cinematic stunt — using CGI to insert actors and their lines over historical footage of Howard Cosell’s memorable calling of the match — falls flat on its face, and leaves you wondering why a movie that does a pretty solid job of casting a wide range of real-world historical personalities couldn’t have just found someone talented to cast as Cosell instead.)
The casting, too, has a highly televisual feel to it; while Steve Carrell, engaging and perverse as Bobby Riggs, has done some solid film work, and Emma Stone is a genuine movie star, the rest of the cast, good as they are, are mostly plucked from the small screen. Some standouts include Sarah Silverman hamming it up as journalist/women’s tennis booster Gladys Heldman, the recently omnipresent Natalie Morales as Rosemary Casals, and Fred Armisen Fred-Armisening quack doctor and pill hack Dr. Rheo Blair. Australian newcomer Jessica McNamee does a good job as Margaret Court Smith, the closest thing Battle of the Sexes has to an actual villain (one of the greatest tennis players of all time, she had a gross post-athletics career as an evangelical preacher who specialized in a vituperative brand of homophobia), and while Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer is a cartoonish jackass, at least it’s Bill Pullman doing it.
Stone in particular deserves singling out for her performance, a claim that I’m sure I’ll hear echoed a lot come awards season. I’ve never been that impressed with her as an actress, and found her entirely forgettable in La La Land, the movie that brought her the most fame she’s yet experienced, but I have to admit, she’s pretty amazing here. It’s not so much an impersonation of King as it is a physical re-creation of her; she gets every little bit right, from the broad smile to the flat, unassuming speech pattern down to King’s memorable body language both on and off the court. King is a very singular athlete, and no one who saw her play or followed her subsequent life forgets how she both knew how to court the press and constantly bristled against the restrictions placed on her; that Stone so perfectly recreates her in both appearance and attitude is unquestionably the best thing about Battle of the Sexes.
Other elements of the film succeed and fail by degrees. The treatment of King’s sexuality — at the time a closely guarded secret — is underplayed (certain details about her romance with Marilyn Barnett are heavily fictionalized, probably for legal reasons), played well (her husband Larry gets a pleasingly sympathetic portrayal, and her moments of infatuation with Barnett are the only moments where the direction of the film veers into the arty), and overplayed (a pep talk from Alan Cumming as fashion designer Ted Tinling is both historically inaccurate and wildly hokey, a clear rah-rah moment in what is an otherwise fairly subdued script). But overall, Battle of the Sexes is just what it sets out to be: a comfortable, familiar telling of a well-known but still-interesting story, presented in a way that checks all the necessary boxes but still delivers a few surprises.