Spoiler: Billy Jean King wins. Not just the epic 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs, but the fantastic, feel-great movie of the same name. This is her story, and, to wit, an illustration of how one shy, unassuming woman was determined to change the game. Inspired yet? Just you wait.
The big match — a hyped-up, entertaining must-see show that was the Mayweather-McGregor of its era — actually fills up a mere 20 minutes of screen time. What Battle of the Sexes does best is show King as not just a bespectacled tennis player with a powerful forehand. As beautifully portrayed by Emma Stone, King may dominate on the courts but, inside, struggles with her blossoming attraction to another woman.
Love means nothing to a tennis player. For King, that true love is tennis. In 1972, she’s the reigning U.S. Open champ and the best ladies player in the world. She’s also a pioneer for women’s rights, outraged by the inequality in her sport. And when the smarmy head of the U.S. Lawn & Tennis Association (Bill Pullman) informs her that women will only be rewarded one-eighth of the amount that men will collect in an upcoming tournament, she pulls out in protest. Then she starts an all-female tour. That’s how Billy Jean rolls. Same goes for her no-nonsense manager (Sarah Silverman, yeah!)
Like most of the females on tour, King is married. Her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), is a swell blond-haired fella who also serves as her manager. She’s never slept with another person. Everything changes when King gets her hair done before a photo shoot. As the soft-spoken stylist (Andrea Riseborough) innocently runs her fingers through King’s hair, she feels something. Something different. Something exciting. When the two later go to a nightclub and King watches her friend dance to the psychedelic sounds of “Crimson and Clover,” that something takes over. The scene oozes with sexual anticipation. But it’s 1972. And though King gives in to her feelings and starts an affair, she’s deeply terrified of the repercussions. She’s not just married. She’s a public figure. Staying closeted is her only option.
Frankly, Battle of the Sexes could have just focused on King’s sexual awakening and been a riveting, socially relevant drama. But directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) smartly give audiences a counterpoint. Enter Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs. A boorish former champ, he’s desperate to hold on this glory years. He’s also a raging gambler. Every time he sees King’s name in the news, he bellows to his friends that he could beat her, no problem. Ding! Ding! He brazenly calls her in the middle of the night and challenges her to the battle of the sexes. “Male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist!!” he propositions. She says no, unwilling to be a part of his circus. He plays Australian Margaret Smith Court instead and handily beats her. King has no choice but give in and literally take one for the team. By the way, she tells him, “I do shave my legs.”
He is 55. She is 29. And yet Riggs, believing that males are the better athletes and dominant in every way, refuses to take his training seriously. While Riggs drinks by the pool, King jogs down the road. While he brags to media outlets about his skills, she hits the courts to work on her skills. But they share a common thread: Trying relationship issues. While King tries desperately to hide her girlfriend, Riggs desperately tries to save his marriage. His wife (Elisabeth Shue) has thrown him out of the house for his compulsive gambling. He loves her to pieces, and she’s the one who bankrolls him. Go figure.
This a film that hinges on its performances — and, yes, everyone is aces. Stone does the heavy lifting here, and though she doesn’t quite disappear in the role, her King is a compelling lithe force. (For those wondering at home, I’d wager that reigning Oscar Best Actress winner Stone will be back at the 2018 ceremony.) I was even more drawn to Carell. The Oscar nominee, who played Stone’s dad in Crazy, Stupid, Love turns Riggs into a tragic figure. Though I cringed at every anti-female remark that came of his mouth, I found myself feeling sorry for a man that doesn’t even want to take off his bulky yellow jacket mid-match because he’s being paid big bucks to wear it. Carell refuses to turn Riggs into a loud-mouthed caricature. That’s great acting.
Of course, Battle of the Sexes is not exactly ancient history. In his 2017 memoir, 1980s men’s champ John McEnroe claimed that all-time great Serena Williams would be ranked 700th in the world if she played on the men’s circuit. Also worth noting: After the premiere screening at the Telluride Film Festival, Dayton told me that in production, everyone assumed that Hillary Clinton would be voted president by the time of release. Maybe women still have a ways to go in some respects, but thanks to King, they no longer have to be reduced to good sports.
(Battle of the Sexes is out on Friday, September 22)
Also published on Medium.