In most sports films—whether based on true stories or not—we always know who we’re supposed to be rooting for. It’s the person or team that the movie spends most of its time chronicling, whereas the film’s villain is often seen only in passing, at a remove, sometimes presented as a distant specter or looming, unholy menace. For all its feel-good, formulaic biopic tendencies, Battle of the Sexes is notable for rethinking this narrative trope. There’s no question that our hearts are with Billie Jean King, the young, talented tennis champion who agrees to a match with the older, bullying Bobby Riggs. But directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) go out of their way to insist that we get to know each participant and understand what drove both of them to that infamous 1973 showdown. We end up with a Battle that’s complicated by our mixed feelings.
Emma Stone plays King, who as the movie opens is the world’s most popular female tennis player. She decides to use that clout to push for slightly more equal pay for the women’s game—she and her cohorts receive a fraction of what the men get, even though they sell out their matches—but Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of American tennis, refuses to budge. Angered, King and her fellow athletes elect to create their own tour, which will become the Virginia Slims, so that they can be better compensated.
Written by Simon Beaufoy (an Oscar-winner for Slumdog Millionaire), Battle of the Sexes opens with this off-the-court drama because it’s critical to the film’s thematic thrust. King’s faceoff with Riggs will serve as the movie’s big, final contest, but the road to that much-hyped match is arguably more important and more interesting. Battle of the Sexes recounts the age of women’s liberation, and for King that movement was both personal and political.
As the Virginia Slims gets rolling, King (who’s married to an anodyne husband, played by Austin Stowell) meets a hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), who instantly stirs something inside her. With real delicacy but also significant sexual spark, Faris and Dayton capture those first exciting, head-swimming moments as love begins to bloom, the jolt even more electric because both characters know they have to be discreet in public so others don’t suspect anything. Battle of the Sexes takes us into the reality of a lesbian relationship that needs to be conducted in private, and Stone and Riseborough have such a warm, sensual chemistry that it quickly becomes the movie’s focal point. King can’t be open about her feelings—she doesn’t want to capsize the Virginia Slims just when it’s getting started by turning off advertisers—and Marilyn gives off the impression of being someone who’s had to do this song-and-dance with previous girlfriends. Nonetheless, they seem determined to make it work.
Meanwhile, there’s Riggs (Steve Carell), a loudmouthed former Wimbledon champion who’s now wasting his life away working an office job in a company owned by the family of his rich wife (Elisabeth Shue). In his 50s, Riggs loves gambling and competing, and he deeply longs for the spotlight he enjoyed in his youth, but he can find no outlet. Eventually, he hits upon the idea of challenging a female tennis player to a match, letting fly with a string of chauvinistic comments asserting men’s athletic superiority and demeaning the nascent women’s-lib movement, practically goading someone to play him in order to shut him up.
Carell plays Riggs as a variation on The Office’s Michael Scott—pathetic, needy, mistaken about how charming he is—and the Oscar-nominated actor doesn’t shy away from the guy’s monstrousness. Battle of the Sexes never quite comes out and calls Riggs a sexist—the movie mostly suggests that his piggish banter was merely a way to stir up interest in his mixed-gender match—but Carell leans into the boasts with such vigor that we constantly wonder how much genuine misogyny lay beneath the showmanship.
As the filmmakers tell these parallel stories, Battle of the Sexes lets the juxtaposition between the two narratives make a subtle point. Riggs’ story is comic and absurdist as he and his wife separate and his life gets progressively sadder. King’s is a romantic drama combined with an inspirational tale of a scrappy underdog facing off against the patriarchy. Riggs’ problems are all self-inflicted—his wife can’t tolerate the sexist patter and the gambling—while King’s are all imposed on her by society. Without ever calling attention to it, Battle of the Sexes shows that King had been battling the Bobby Riggses of the world long before she squared off with the actual one. For her, an aging, irrelevant schmuck was the least of her problems.
Stone has long made a specialty of playing dorky/sweet characters, and King is another riff on a familiar type. But King requires an extra layer of poise and nuance, as this feminist trailblazer feels the pressure of being the leader of a movement while balancing an affair with a marriage to a good man she can no longer convince herself she loves. Battle of the Sexes projects a breezy confidence—the movie’s a little too smooth and polished, eschewing the grit of real life—but Stone conveys her character’s growing anxieties with such care that King emerges as an immensely empathetic, resilient figure.
We root for her to defeat Riggs, but Carell brings just enough pathos to his character’s outcome that our satisfaction at his downfall is quelled somewhat. Riggs, who died in 1999, might have been a pig, but Battle of the Sexes extends him the courtesy of compassion—a sentiment this enterprising, self-absorbed hustler wasn’t decent enough to exhibit to others. And even if you don’t know who won their match, let’s just say that the movie’s ending is undeniably bittersweet. King always said she accepted Riggs’s challenge because she wanted to strike a blow for feminism. Filmed at the height of the 2016 presidential election—a race in which misogyny was uncomfortably center-stage—Battle of the Sexes marks one small moment in an ongoing fight for equality. Sadly, that victory has yet to be won.
Director: Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.