I enjoyed this movie more when I saw it in the theater than when I thought about it afterward.
It’s nicely made and well acted, but its organizing concept and ultimate conflict is a silly 1973 spectacle that pretended to have something to do with women’s liberation, as it was called in the day. Why should we care?
The body of the movie is the story of the two tennis players in that event.
Billie Jean King, the American tennis star, is rightly outraged that women’s events draw audiences equal to those of men but offer much smaller prizes. She and others form their own league. She is absolutely right, and good for her.
Bobby Riggs, a middle-aged gambler and showboater who used to be a tennis star, challenges King to a tennis match and, when she refuses, convinces Australian Margaret Court to play him. He wins.
King is again challenged by Riggs, and this time she says yes. Her purpose is to assert the equality of women, or something. “He’s going to make women’s tennis look like a sideshow,” she worries.
A fair question, in 1973 and now, is this: Why would a legitimate tennis star at the top of her game agree to participate in an actual sideshow with a middle-aged, washed-up, attention-seeking has-been?
Emma Stone plays King, who is ardent, serious and sexually confused. Long married to a supportive husband, she finds herself attracted to a female hairdresser and they begin an affair. This is done in a credible way and is true generally to the facts of the situation, which was almost certainly an open secret in 1973.
Steve Carell plays Riggs, who is fun to watch but irresponsible. His long-suffering wife finally tells him, “I need a husband who is steady, and that is not you.” His son Larry also seems to have had enough and refuses to attend the big match.
King trains for the match like the serious person she is.
Riggs does not train for the match. He mugs for the press in silly costumes and makes outrageous sexist statements that even he does not believe.
Then comes the match, whose result has been telegraphed pretty effectively. And that’s the movie.
Effectively, “Battle of the Sexes” portrays a 1973 event through a 2017 template. We do a lot of that now, but every once in a while I find it grating. This is one of those times.
To be fair, the whole thing works better than it should, which redounds to the credit of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also made the charming “Little Miss Sunshine,” described once as “a thinking person’s ‘National Lampoon Vacation.'”
If you care about that 1973 tennis match, you may enjoy a 2013 article that suggests a couple reasons why Riggs may have planned deliberately to lose to King.
Margaret Court, the Australian tennis star, ultimately won 23 grand slam events to King’s 12. The movie treats her with a bit of disdain. Long ago she intemperately said, “There were lots of lesbians in tennis,” and she more recently has been been strident in her opposition to gay marriage. There is now a movement afoot to take her name off an arena in Melbourne.