Battle of the Sexes

This dramatization of the titular 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), then the top female tennis player in the world, and washed-up but entertaining former champ/eternal hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) adheres closely to the real events that led up to that famous night, where chauvinism squared off against feminism in front of 90 million viewers.

The behind-the-scenes details are the best thing about the film. Having known little about the match itself, which was far more circus than game, I was drawn in by all the machinations: King's more toxic rivalry with misogynistic impresario Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman); the demands of sponsors like Virginia Slims and Sugar Daddy; Fred Armisen as a typical '70s "doctor to the stars", plying Riggs with literally hundreds of vitamins a day.

I wish more of the film explored that crossover between sports and showbiz. Instead, it spends more time than necessary on King's sexual awakening with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Yes, it's an important part of King's biography, and it's handled well on screen, but the Barnett subplot distracts from the story much in the same way Barnett herself is shown to distract King from the game.

I can't really fault the directors, or screenwriter Simon Beaufoy; to tell the story of Billie Jean King in 1973, one must decide how much time to spend on her public persona and how much on her private life. There are many solutions, all valid. I would have emphasized King the tennis player a bit more; today's audience needs to understand what made her so great. Battle of the Sexes treats tennis as an afterthought at times, as King and Barnett repeatedly pitch woo. We don't really get a sense of King's professional determination until the tortoise-vs.-hare montage before the final match, where she trains like a demon while Riggs clowns around in silly photo shoots.

Stone is fine, though she doesn't quite convince as King. Carell, in contrast, is a dead ringer for Riggs, right down to the yellow teeth. It may be the best casting of the year. The rest of the cast is filled out by faces both familiar and new. All are solid, even if their '70s hair and costuming varies in accuracy. (I guess 1970s fashions, such as King's famous feathered hairdo, are just too unflattering for modern filmmakers to faithfully replicate.) The film's greatest coup was getting to use Howard Cosell's real play-by-play narration during the Battle of the Sexes telecast. It reminds you that everything in the film, from the casual sexism that King faced to the ridiculous antics during the match itself, actually happened.