Let’s just get it out of the way—yes, Battle of the Sexes gives Emma Stone the more Oscar-worthy part than La La Land. Billie Jean King is a better character, better written, and this is now a classic case of “won an Oscar for the wrong movie”. With that established, Battle of the Sexes is a solid biopic of Billie Jean King that resonates a little harder in the current political climate, with women’s rights under attack and feeling like we’re taking big steps backwards. It’s not an especially political movie, beyond asserting that women are people, too, and people should be able to freely love whomever they choose, but these are the times we live in, and so Battle picks up a little headwind it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s not an extraordinary movie, but it is extraordinarily satisfying.
Battle focuses just on 1973 and the events running up to the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match King played against Bobby Riggs. Keeping the story tight and focused is a good call—many biopics suffer for sprawl, but Battle plays sharp since it’s limited to this specific event. It begins with King’s US Open win, which makes her the highest-earning women’s tennis player in the world, but her efforts to get equal prize payouts for women fails, kiboshed by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), head of the United States Lawn Tennis Association. Battle is maybe a little unfair to Kramer, who has to stand in for all the men who don’t respect women and so becomes the movie’s big bad, but also, it’s in the historical record—he didn’t compensate women equally. So maybe not that unfair.
Also not that unfair is the fact that Bobby Riggs’ story is less developed than King’s—it is her movie, not his. Steve Carell is great as Riggs, but he definitely has less to do, and that’s okay. Because Billie Jean is front and center, and Stone is working at her highest level. She captures King’s drive and intensity, but also the quieter moments when King is torn between her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), and her lover, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, doing the most with a smaller part). It’s Stone’s movie and King’s story, and everything else plays second fiddle.
What Battle does well, for the most part, is tell a story without being too on the nose. It’s a broad movie, meant to appeal widely, but ideas are seeded well in the story, particularly a compare-and-contrast between Riggs and Kramer. Without belaboring the point, Battle illustrates how “just jokes” can be damaging, too. Riggs is out to put the “show in chauvinism”, but he doesn’t seem to really believe the chauvinism sh*t he’s shoveling, he just saw an opportunity to make some money and get some press and he’s making the most of it. But his “circus” has the potential to be every bit as hurtful as real bigotry, as represented by Kramer.
Battle does get a bit too heavy-handed when it comes to King’s love life, though. Alan Cumming is on hand as fashion designer Ted Tinling, who designed the tennis outfits for the Women’s Tennis Association, and he gives King many meaningful looks and a sympathetic hug and tells her that someday they can be who they truly are without fear of reprisal. Combining King’s struggle for equal pay with her personal struggle with her sexuality and marriage is a nice piece of intersectionality that illustrates how it’s all related, and how even if King achieves equal pay, she still won’t have Equality, as long as she’s not free to be open about who she really is. But then Ted shows up to MAKE SURE that we get it, and not unlike Molly’s Game shouting to the back about its point, some of the gracefulness of the story is lost.
But that’s a relatively minor quibble. Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining and inspiring story about a dogged woman winning against men who don’t take her seriously enough, and it’s a timely story to be retold. Even though the winner has long since been declared—in tennis, anyway—the tennis matches are exciting to watch, and it seems the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine), selected the most thrilling exchanges to recreate for the movie. Battle of the Sexes is a fun movie, a total crowd pleaser, which is pointedly about how far we have and have not come since 1973, and the work still to be done. It’s also a reminder that we have won before, and we can win again.