Battle of the Sexes” lobs some easy ones over the net, and the result is extremely watchable, if not extremely memorable. Emma Stone is sympathetic and uplifting as Billie Jean King, beloved champion of tennis and women’s rights.
This film follows her as she defects from the Pacific Northwest Tennis Tournament and forms her own women’s tennis tour when the men’s tour, helmed by the condescending Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), scoffs at approaching remotely equal pay, assisted by World Tennis magazine editor Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes.
As the Women’s Tour increases in popularity, we meet the over-the-top villain Bobby Riggs, played with great humor and huge false teeth by Steve Carell. Riggs himself, when the film finds him, is more of comedian, huckster and hustler than tennis player, so of course Carell is perfect. Kept on a short leash by his wealthy wife (Elizabeth Shue), he concocts a plan to ostensibly put women tennis players in their place by challenging one to a tennis match. After he handily beats the No. 1 women’s tennis player, King — who initially opposed the idea — feels she has no choice but to beat him.
The film suggests Riggs’ outrageous level of chauvinism was exaggerated for effect, and that he was simply, and cannily, tapping into the sentiment of the day to make money. Eventually King tells Jack Kramer that Riggs’ attitude is just a sideshow act, and that Kramer’s true beliefs are exponentially more damaging to women. This softens the viewer a bit toward Riggs, plus the fact that Carell is playing him.
To balance out the fact that “Battle of the Sexes” tells a true story many people already know, the private struggles of both Riggs and King are the background for the film. King is married to a man in the film, a sweet, supportive and handsome man who is devoted to her career and turns a blind eye to the fact that, as she is slowly discovering, she is attracted to women. This movie is rated PG-13 and actually fills that kind of difficult niche of movies you can watch with your parents, but there is some mild same-sex smooching.
The budding romance between King and a pretty hairdresser who joins them on their tour is given pretty soft treatment, as the difficulty of facing and openly stating her sexuality is a fairly significant topic in the life of Billie Jean King. While the reality of that romance became pretty brutal, and a lawsuit brought by the hairdresser ultimately outed King against her will, this film concerns itself with the easier to digest story of the most watched tennis match of all time, the “Battle of the Sexes” that gives the film its name.
Since the entire match was built on spectacle, it’s no surprise it makes a dramatic, straightforward movie. It’s interesting but not fascinating, but it’s a good story and it seems like stories about misogyny are perennially timely. Even if we know the outcome, it’s fun to watch, with compelling performances from some of everyone’s favorite movie stars.
This is a nice, safe film that glosses over some of the nitty-gritty to present an uplifting narrative, but far be it from me to begrudge you a bit of uplift in the form of plucky Emma Stone putting on glasses to portray an even pluckier real-life heroine and, even if the truth was less neatly wrapped up than what we get here, it feels pretty good to cheer at the ending.
“Battle of the Sexes” is currently available to rent.