In the late summer of 1973, the country was abuzz with the impending Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Now, some four decades later, the awards circuit is abuzz with the feature film about that famous match, and I’m frankly at a loss as to why. While Emma Stone and Steve Carell turn in fine performances as King and Riggs, the movie itself is a meandering examination of King’s sexuality more than a re-telling of the gonzo tennis match (and all its made-for-TV build-up), as the trailer implies.
The end result is something that might have played better as an indie, art-house film about King struggling with her identity, though it doesn’t tackle that successfully, either—relying on pretty much every cliche in the book during what should be the film’s most touching moments.
It seems like co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) couldn’t make up their mind about what kind of film they wanted Battle of the Sexes to be, and in their effort to do everything, they did none of it particularly well. The film shifts from a light-hearted, vintage 70s vibe to the soft-focus/tight close-up feel of a Lifetime movie feel as King begins her relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). And then for the all-tennis finale, Dayton and Faris stage almost everything as we’re watching on TV from high above the crowd, presumably to hide the fact that it’s not Stone and Carell playing the actual tennis.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who has dazzled in the past with his scripts for The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours, does little to help, presenting the women’s-lib message with only a series of half-hearted vignettes while giving far more time to King and her internal struggles. In addition there’s little background or context for the heart of the story to build off of; we’re plunked into 1973 America and supposed to immediately grasp the breadth of the ridiculous prejudices and chauvinism women were facing at that time.
Stone, despite (distractingly) looking nothing like King, does her usual quality work, though it’s certainly a softened characterization of a woman who was much more direct and in-your-face. It’s disappointing that Beaufoy and company didn’t think we could handle the real-life King’s personality, instead deciding to portray her as America’s racquet-wielding sweetheart. Carell is the one who steals the show, completely capturing Riggs’ buffoonery while also portraying the much more compelling and heartfelt man out of the spotlight; his quiet-moment scenes with wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) are the film’s best.
There’s still debate to this day as to whether the tennis match was a watershed moment in the history of feminism or just a spectacle that ended up serving little purpose but to entertain the country for a few hours in September 1973, but whatever the end result was, surely it deserved better than this half-baked movie all these years later.