A gender wars back-and-forth with surprising emotional richness, Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris serve up an ace with Battle of the Sexes, a warm, solidly entertaining look at the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, the top-ranked female player, and Bobby Riggs, an ex-World Champion hungry for the spotlight.
Some of Little Miss Sunshine’s affection for misfits united by shared dysfunction is visible in Battle of the Sexes, Simon Beaufoy’s script framing Billie Jean (Emma Stone) and Bobby (Steve Carell) as a pair of almost-weirdos comparable in their compulsions. Billie Jean’s rebellion against tennis establishment is the engine of the story: when Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), head of the Lawn Tennis Association, refuses to raise female players’ prize money to match that of their male counterparts, or even come close, his prejudice cloaked in biological common sense, Billie Jean and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) break off and start their own women’s tennis championship.
They recruit a splinter group of willing players, including Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), Jane Bartkowicz (Martha MacIsaac) and Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), whose hard morality and parent status mark her as an outsider amongst the outsiders, and go on tour, rolling out lawns at their own tournaments and bunking up to save cash.
Among those following their insurrection is former champion Bobby, a loser and motor-mouthed hustler, with a gambling addict’s fixation on the next big break. The 55 year-old is a marginalised figure in his own life, killing time in his father-in-law’s company and playing the good husband to long-suffering wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Sue). Unable to let go of the thrill of the game, he plays matches for money on the sly, the boxed lines of the office and the pin-prick blue light of the night court emphasizing his isolation.
When a friend playfully suggests he take on Billie Jean in a feminist vs. chauvinist stunt match, Bobby sniffs out a big payday, and aims his persuasive bluster at the new women’s vanguard. Bobby isn’t really a misogynist pig, but he knows a good angle when he sees it, and goes into Women’s Lib-bashing mode for the cameras, lobbing practice serves with kitchen pans. While the younger, fitter Billie Jean sweats and suffers, Bobby lounges by the pool, gobbing vitamin super-pills from Fred Armisen’s “doctor” and chasing sponsorship deals for the ‘battle of the sexes’ decider, which creeps closer to a circus as buzz builds. Bobby’s salesman routine is funny in every scene he’s in, but Carell is skilled at tuning into the pity and neediness of his characters, bringing out Bobby’s desperation to be respected, especially by his eye-rolling family.
Anyway, Billie Jean’s enemy isn’t Bobby, it’s Jack Kramer. Bobby is a loud joker, but Jack represents the country club establishment, the gentleman class that sees women as decoration, and Pullman delivers his dialogue with barely-concealed condescension, almost smirking at the cheek of the female players’ demands. “Be reasonable”, he coos, like every reactionary ever.
Billie Jean sticking it to Kramer is satisfying to watch, but the film’s emotional core is the loneliness of hustler outsiders, and of the people unlucky enough to love them. At a salon touch-up for a photo shoot, Billie Jean meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and is overcome with a sudden, euphoric intimacy, their same-sex attraction both a liberation and a liability. Their romance is lightly sketched and moving, even if Marilyn doesn’t grow much beyond lesbian dream girl status, but she has to come second to Billie Jean’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell), or maybe he comes second to her — whatever the order, they both rank below the demands of the game and of the historical moment.
With all the fuss about who is the best — the best player, the best gender —it’s Battle of the Sexes’ sensitivity to the also-rans, and to the compromises of victory, that raise it above uplifting history lesson. Conor Smyth
Battle of the Sexes is out on wide release.