Yes indeed, there was a 2001 ABC movie called (spoiler alert!) When Billie Beat Bobby, starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver as the battling tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, circa 1973. And while that version of the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” is quite good, there were a few key things it left out, including King’s marriage-endangering affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, which was a key source of both happiness and stress at that time in her life because the world would not have accepted an openly gay player in any sport.
Now in the hands of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, The Fully Monty, 127 Hours) and directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), Battle of the Sexes presents a more accurate and balanced look at the match between former men’s champion Riggs (Steve Carell) and the deeply private King (Emma Stone). Riggs isn’t made out to be a villain in this telling; he was more of an opportunist and a degenerate gambler in need of money and a bit of validation in the years just past his prime. He’s married to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who finds the right balance of chilly and compassionate), who comes from money and has been bankrolling him since he left tennis.
If there’s a bad guy here, it’s the institution of sports in general and tennis in particular. Bill Pullman plays Jack Kramer, the head of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which was regularly playing its women player far less than the men, despite the fact that both sets of matches regularly sold out. With the ATP refusing to give equal pay to the women, all female players left the group and started up what would become the first Virginia Slims women’s tournament, with higher purses for the winners and a fairly impressive travel budget. Sarah Silverman plays Gladys Heldman, who manages the players and attempts to keep them morally sound.
Although King was married to husband Larry (Austin Stowell, and no, not that Larry King), she began an affair with Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, Birdman, Nocturnal Animals) that was a little too out in the open. Riggs’ first attempt to lure King (the number one player at the time) onto the court failed because she saw it for the circus that it would become and knew that Bobby was showboating as a male chauvinist to get attention. When King lost to former women’s champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Court became the player of choice to go against Riggs, and the result was disastrous for both Court and female players, forcing King to accept the match that become the most watched televised sporting event in history.
Battle of the Sexes does an admirable job capturing not just the look of the period, but the mindset. This match divided the country and likely set back male-female relations in the weeks leading up to it, but the outcome might have made it worth it. The conversations it started seem as timely and important as they do today, and I loved watching King’s team rally around her and push her to her limit during her training. Alan Cumming is on hand as Ted Tinling, the team’s outfitter, who designed unique tennis skirts for each player and dared to introduce color and words of wisdom into the mix. Natalie Morales (“Parks and Recreation”) particularly shines as teammate Rosie Casals, who ended up doing commentary for the match alongside Howard Cosell (expertly worked into the film using archival footage), who was no stranger to sexist talk and behavior himself. The way he puts his arm around Casals when they are on camera together is outright creepy.
As much as the film gives us a fair amount of Riggs’ and King’s personal lives, there were moments where I wish I had more insight into what was motivating them beyond the bigger-picture stuff. King was a relentless competitor, and I would have loved to know where that drive came from. She relates a childhood story to Barnett on the subject, but it feels like she’s only scratching the surface. And as much of a clown as Riggs can be, there’s a deep sense that he doesn’t think he’s good enough—for his wife, his comfortable lifestyle or the title of best tennis player. Still Carell and Stone (who played father and daughter in Crazy, Stupid, Love) completely inhabit these roles to a point that goes far beyond impersonation (although Carell’s resemblance to Riggs is freakish).
Unspooled in a straight-forward biography style by Dayton and Faris, Battle of the Sexes is an easy watch that provides a smattering of insight and a transportive amount of love for the decade. The performances are all great, and while the male characters might be painted a bit too broadly (and I acknowledge that I might be biased), I’m guessing it accurate for the period.
And even though the outcome of the match is likely known, it doesn’t take away from some truly incredible re-creations of great tennis. There’s a lovely moment at the end of the film in which it’s clear that King is aware that her life is about to change completely and that things can never go back to the way they were, professionally or privately. The scene is both heartbreaking and fortifying, and it does a great job setting the tone for the rest of her life. It’s a great moment that made me love the whole film just a little bit more.