No, no, no! It wasn’t supposed to be this way! The first woman presidential candidate was supposed to handily beat an unqualified sexist loudmouth last November, so that we’d enjoy a nice celebratory glow when Battle of the Sexes came out with its similar real-life sports story this weekend. Instead, this film comes out with President Pussy Grabber nominally in charge of our country. Movies are great. Real life sucks, especially its misogyny. Fortunately, this is not only the greatest tennis film ever made but also a rousing piece of entertainment.
The story picks up in 1972, as Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) wins that year’s U.S. Open amid her tear through women’s tennis. Her joy turns to anger, though, when she finds out that her prize money is one-eighth the size of the men’s champion’s. Dismissed by the men who run the sport, she starts her own rogue tennis tour, peeling off a cadre of ranked women’s players. Enter Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a 55-year-old former Grand Slam champ with a gambling problem and a yearning for tennis and the limelight it once brought him. He calls Billie Jean to challenge her to a $35,000 exhibition match as a publicity stunt, only to get turned down. However, when No. 1-ranked women’s player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) accepts and gets whipped on national TV, Billie Jean vows to beat Bobby to prove her sport’s legitimacy.
As with the best stories based on real life, the most outrageous parts of this movie are true: The women’s tennis tour was bankrolled by a cigarette company, Riggs participated in photo shoots in the nude and playing tennis in wild costumes, and the match billed as The Battle of the Sexes was as circus-like as it’s presented here. (It still holds the record for ticket buyers and TV viewers for a tennis match.) This is helmed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team who directed both the overpraised Little Miss Sunshine and the sorely underappreciated Ruby Sparks. They don’t miss many tricks here, including Bobby’s chaotic home life and the previously heterosexual Billie Jean’s unexpected romance with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser whom she meets before a photo op. Maybe the late exchange between Billie Jean and her openly gay clothing designer (Alan Cumming) concedes a bit too much to our time, but the plotline gives rise to piquant ancillary scenes like a confrontation between Marilyn and Billie Jean’s husband (Austin Stowell), as well as the primly homophobic Court delighting in Billie Jean’s relationship, figuring correctly that its emotional fallout will throw her off her game.
Stone is marvelously alert here, displaying a game face to intimidate real-life pros but also flashing fear as she embarks on a relationship that, if it goes public, will ruin everything she’s trying to accomplish. She’s matched step for step by Carell — you figure he’d be well-suited to Riggs’ clownish public antics, but he’s also good with the dissatisfaction of a guy who knows his adrenaline addiction has chased away his wife and teenage son, as well as his public sexism that both is and isn’t an act. Around the edges of the story, Natalie Morales puts in a good shift as fellow women’s champion Rosie Casals and Sarah Silverman filches laughs at every turn as a hard-nosed tennis journalist who becomes the tour’s organizer.
For all this, Battle of the Sexes’ impact can’t help but be blunted by this past election season and the hateful men it brought out, who are far more toxic than the ones depicted in the movie. Yet the film is still timely. For one thing, the pay gap that King spent her career fighting still exists in tennis, as well as in Hollywood and elsewhere. Along with many other actresses, Emma Stone has come forward with stories about the indignities and mistreatment she’s experienced as a woman in this industry that pays so much lip service to diversity and being woke. Now this immensely charming and talented actress is armed with growing social awareness and that Oscar that she just won. I’m thinking this can only lead to good things, maybe even an America where a political version of Billie Jean King can rise to the challenge and give Mr. Trump the straight-sets loss that he richly deserves. Movies are good at inspiring you to dream, right?
Battle of the Sexes
Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Rated PG-13.