For the average social conservative, the ’70s in America probably seems like a bacchanal in retrospect. That was the decade, after all, when the various freedoms promulgated by the protest movements of the ’60s finally began sprouting into view. But it was just the start of the sexual revolution, not anywhere close to its full flowering.
So, in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s slow-burn historical comedy Battle of the Sexes, when Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is at the salon and finds herself falling deep into the eyes of her hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), it’s not as though the married tennis star is free to fling open the closet door. Billie might not be able to shake the electric sensation of that meeting, but there’s a tour to go on, not to mention sponsors and a public who wouldn’t approve.
As it is, Billie already has her fair share of battles to fight. Even though at the time she was women’s world champion and one of the most popular athletes in the country, a tennis association run by leathery old pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman in full snarl) refused to pay her more than a fraction of what the men were getting. In response, bolstered by nail-tough promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), Billie starts up her own women’s tour. It’s a risky professional move, given the entrenched sexism of the time. But after hearing Kramer bloviate about how it was a “fact” that male tennis players were simply more entertaining to watch, Billie decides it’s better to court penury and being blackballed than to remain a second-class citizen.
But that’s not the story that the movie’s promotion was selling. The ads promised a fun and goofy feel-good true story — with eye-burning ’70s fashion and appropriate Elton John soundtrack — about that time former tennis champ Bobby Riggs challenged Billie to a showdown match worth $100k. Riggs is played here by the filmmaker’s Little Miss SunshineSteve Carell, who has made a specialty out of emotionally stunted, half-lovable losers. He ably deploys all his tricks here in the portrayal of an inveterate gambler and all-around hustler who craves the spotlight so much that he’ll play a woman 25 years younger than him and act the clown to rustle up attention and sell tickets.
It’s only later in the movie, when Carell’s act darkens and he channels a certain Peter Sellers-like desperation, that the character takes on any urgency. Needless to say, Carell’s Riggs remains ultimately likable. The real villain of the piece is Kramer, given to pronouncements like “It’s a man’s game” and harrumphing the women who come barging into his oak-walled men’s only club.
However, the star of Battle of the Sexes, not to mention the actual “Battle of the Sexes” match that was held in the Houston Astrodome in 1973 and watched by tens of millions, is not Riggs but King. Simon Beaufoy’s script is particularly wrapped up in the story of her secretive romance on the women’s tour (“I’m married,” Billie says at one point, to which Marilyn shrugs, “that’s okay, I have a boyfriend”) and the hovering presence throughout of her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), who knows what’s happening but can’t quite bring himself to leave Billie.
The focus on the undercover romance makes sense for the story. Even though Billie is outwardly battling for women to be taken seriously, both as athletes and as human beings, her inability to be open about her choice of lover gives some idea of what she was up against. But Beaufoy skimps so much on language and Marilyn’s motivations that she practically fades into the shag carpeting. Given that Stone is playing Billie as a buttoned-up type who carries her emotions on her shoulders and in her jaw, the movie’s pivots back towards Riggs, awkward as they sometimes are, become a refreshing break of pace.
The makers of Battle of the Sexes seem to think they were producing a comedy with heart; most likely a far cry from what the project’s originator, Danny Boyle, had in mind. The screen is stocked with comic vets like Chris Parnell and Fred Armisen in tiny roles, not to mention a twinkling Alan Cumming as the women’s tour’s outfit designer and one-man surreptitious gay support network for Billie.
The prevailing mood is that of light farce, but how else do you treat a historical reenactment in which Billie is carried into the arena on a Cleopatra-styled litter? When the movie finally turns to the climactic match, complete with excited volley-by-volley coverage and roaring crowd, the whiplash takes some getting used to.