Emma Stone gives a strong, appealing performance in BATTLE OF THE SEXES, a well-meaning if uneven film about the 1973 tennis match between tennis great Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. It is overstating it to call it a Billy Jean King biopic. Instead it focuses on a cultural pivot point when 29-year-old women’s tennis champion Billy Jean King (Stone) took part in a match against a clownish self-described male chauvinist named Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). But despite his buffoon behavior and penchant for wearing outlandish costumes during matches, Bobby Riggs was no ordinary clown on the court but a former tennis champ and Hall of Famer. The comedy distracted his opponents on the court, concealing the fact that at 55, Riggs was still a formidable tennis player. Continue reading…
But better than the best women tennis player in the world? That was the question the “Battle of the Sexes” stunt match was supposed to answer. The real question was why would a serious athlete at the top of her game like Billy Jean King want to compromise her dignity, and respect for women’s tennis she was struggling to establish, by participating in one of Bobby Riggs stunt matches?
It is the question the film should have addressed, as well as women’s fight to be taken seriously in the work place and be paid equally. The film does raise those issues at the start but then drifts off into both King’s and Riggs’ personal lives, and never really gets back to those subjects. The film wraps up with a feel-good, look-how-far-we’ve-come sort of message. It is a pleasant enough, crowd-pleasing film but leaves the pay equity issue, still with us now, forget as it rushes towards a happy ending.
Nonetheless, Emma Stone is excellent as King, giving a touching, layered performance, good enough to make the film worthwhile despite its shortcomings. Steve Carrell does a good job capturing Bobby Riggs’ bombast and showmanship but is far less convincing playing the wiry, energetic Riggs in the tennis scenes. Riggs’ signature move of jumping over the net at the end of match is reduced to Carrell gingerly stepping over it.
In the strong supporting cast, Elizabeth Shue does a fine job as Riggs’ wife, at the end of her wits over his compulsive gambling. Sarah Silverman as the women’s tour manager and Andrea Riseborough as a hairdresser who catches King’s eye turn in nice work too, as well as Austin Stowell as King’s husband and Alan Cumming as a sort of wise-soul role. Bridey Elliott and Natalie Morales play some of the tennis pros on the tour with King but could have been given more to do.
Even with its missed opportunities, BATTLE OF THE SEXES still serves as a reminder to a younger generation of how great Billy Jean King was on court and off, and how far women’s sports have come. But the film could have been much more.