A sports movie can be about many things beyond the job at hand: Raging Bull is about machismo and masochism; Bull Durham is about getting older; The Bad News Bears is about collectivism. Inspired by the 1973 exhibition match between former men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs and the (then) current women’s number one, Billie Jean King, Battle of the Sexes tells us next to nothing about tennis, but contrives to say a fair amount about gender discrimination and homophobia in the guise of a feelgood comedy.
Certificate 12A 121m 28s
Directors Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Billie Jean King Emma Stone
Bobby Riggs Steve Carrel
Marilyn Barnett Andrea Riseborough
Priscilla Wheelan Elisabeth Shue
Ted Tinling Alan Cumming
Jane ‘Peaches’ Bartkowicz Martha MacIsaac
Lornie Kuhle Eric Christian Olsen
Gladys Heldman Sarah Silverman
Produced by Danny Boyle and with a screenplay by Simon ‘The Full Monty’ Beaufoy, but directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the movie begins with King, the reigning women’s champ, splitting from the National Tennis League in a dispute over pay disparities: women are offered one eighth of the prize money awarded to their male counterparts. Outrageously, 44 years on, this issue remains a hot topic, not only in tennis (John McEnroe recently remarked Serena Williams would struggle to compete against the 700th ranked male) but in sports, in the movie business (where Emma Stone, who plays Billie Jean, has been vocal about sexist salary practices), at the BBC, and in almost every other high-paying sector.
Joined by 10 of her colleagues, King commits to a series of breakaway tournaments across the US, the Virginia Slims tour. Meanwhile retired, bored, 55-year-old men’s champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has an inspiration: a Him vs Her match to restore the natural order of things.
Riggs is the movie’s best surprise, at least to those of us who don’t recall the real thing: an inveterate gambler and showman whose braggadocio is seemingly modeled on Muhammad Ali and whose caricature chauvinism is all about the hype. Carell gives us plenty to like: Bobby’s a fun-loving, overgrown boy who can’t rein himself in (in a bravura scene, he leads a Gamblers Anonymous meeting astray by suggesting their problem isn’t gambling but losing). He’s also inescapably pathetic, a bona-fide buffoon.
On the other side of the net, Stone proves a good fit for the nerdy and earnest, bespectacled Billie Jean. Initially disdainful of Riggs’ offer, she is compelled to change her mind after longtime rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) takes the bait, and loses humiliatingly.
An excellent supporting cast including Elizabeth Shue as Bobby’s wife, Bill Pullman as the patriarchal NTL boss, and Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, who organises the Slims tour, brings finer shading than we typically encounter in this kind of fare, and a delicately handled lesbian romance with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) adds another layer of emotional complexity to the piece. The initial flirtation, at the hair salon, is a gloriously giddy swoon into uncharted territory, and it’s refreshing that the filmmakers eschew the expected matrimonial showdown for something a little less obvious, a kind of unspoken acceptance. (Even if Alan Cumming as the women’s go-to dress designer is stuck with a couple of awkwardly on-the-nose Gay Lib-is-Next speeches.)
Dayton and Faris mostly keep things simple on court and off, and work hard to persuade us that a facile publicity stunt stands as a significant landmark in the fight for equality. That’s a stretch and a half, but still, you will want Billie Jean to prove her point, and that’s game, set and match for this tidy crowd-pleaser.