'Battle of the Sexes': Film Review | Telluride 2017

It's a champ.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell play Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in this film about the highly publicized 1973 tennis match between the two.

It’s game, set and match for Battle of the Sexes, a massively entertaining account of the momentous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that also deftly deals with the numerous social issues inherent in the carnival-like contest. Emma Stone comes out swinging with a terrific turn as a star player going through significant personal turmoil, while co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton top their 2006 smash Little Miss Sunshine with a finely tuned piece that deftly shoots the drama through with grand human comedy. This is an all but sure-fire early fall winner for Fox Searchlight.

Originally written by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) for Danny Boyle to direct, this buoyant film deftly captures a moment in time when long-standing social norms were beginning, but only beginning, to be upended by upstarts of a new generation. Younger audiences might be aghast at some of the old-school sexist attitudes that prevailed at the time, and the filmmakers do a great job at using this one-of-a-kind event to signpost certain advances through the prism of the sports world.

As the match was perceived by the public, the contest pitted an essentially cartoon version of a male chauvinist pig against a women’s libber who thought women should be paid as much as men. For the clownish Riggs, the showdown served as a way this largely forgotten former No. 1 player (back in the early 1940s) could shove himself back into the spotlight one more time, while for King the issues were real, beginning with how women at the time were earning perhaps one-twelfth of what men could pull on the circuit.

Beaufoy breezes through the exposition in scenes that neatly introduce the coterie of women players who are traveling around on the nascent Women’s Tennis Association circuit, staying at low-end motels and hearing from their sharp-tongued publicist Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman in chain-smoking vampy mode) about the imminent Virginia Slims Tournament, which is just taking off.

King is the top name in the women’s game and therefore has the most to complain about in terms of unfair remuneration, a situation the condescending big cheese of the sport, Jack Kramer (a very good Bill Pullman), staunchly refuses to adjust. King is married to Larry King (the blond, male modelish Austin Stowell), who is her coach, manager and trainer, but in his temporary absence she meets hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), whose warm vibes very quickly win her entrée to Billie Jean’s room and bed.

These intimate scenes are deftly and sympathetically handled; King claims she’s never had a female lover before but it quickly seems she has discovered something about herself that she either never knew or allowed herself to admit to. She well knows that, should this news get out, her career would be over, and she’s also troubled by the effect it will have on Larry, who sniffs out the situation pretty quickly. It’s complicated stuff, and the filmmakers pull it all off with sensitivity and aplomb.

King’s internal struggle and sense of guilt about her husband wreak temporary havoc on her career, as her Australian rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) dominates the women’s game in 1973.

In the interim, boisterous gambling addict Riggs is coming unglued at a boring executive desk job while bouncing off the walls of the mansion he shares with heiress wife Priscilla Riggs (Elisabeth Shue), who understands and tolerates him as she would a young son. “You’re like a little kid, you know that?” she says, to which he replies, “Well, you’re good with kids.”

Although his best sports years are three decades behind him, Bobby decides he’s going to play into Jack Kramer’s sympathetic and wealthy hands and challenge the best woman on the circuit. When King refuses, he lures in Court and embarrasses the current No. 1.

This sets the stage for King, who, unlike Riggs, takes the winner-take-all $100,00 prize seriously, not for the money itself but for what it stands for. She knows she has to win, or else see the cause of equal standing for women in tennis be set back indefinitely.

Even though the serious underpinnings remain, the writer and directors pull out all the stops for the climactic showdown. Due to the massive publicity, the event is scheduled for Houston’s Astrodome and the attendant hoo-ha matches that for the Super Bowl; in the event, 90 million people will tune in, making this the most watched television event since the moon landing.

The result of the contest is no secret, but it’s nonetheless great fun to watch. Very shrewdly, Faris and Dayton have chosen to cover it visually in the manner of a TV sports broadcast of the time, with most shots coming from an elevated angle. They have also extensively incorporated the event’s main announcer, ABC’s Howard Cosell, into the proceedings, both verbally and physically. For those of a certain age, his inclusion will have an intensely nostalgic effect, just as it’s rather startling to observe Cosell putting his arm tightly around the neck and shoulder of Natalie Morales, the modern actress playing 1970s tennis star and commentator Rosie Casals.

Just about everything about this film is winning and gratifying. Groomed to resemble King pretty closely, Stone delivers a terrific performance that’s convincing dramatically and physically, even if the tennis playing has been enhanced by computer-generated body doubling. Carell is goofy and funny in a plausible way for a born self-promoter and gambler now playing for his biggest stakes.

Alan Cumming makes a welcome appearance as a bold women’s league outfit designer whose knowing comments provide reassurance to the sexually struggling King, while Fred Armisen appears silently as a mysterious “doctor” who provides Riggs with mysterious “vitamin” cocktails in the run-up to the big match.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s work is exceptional in a straightforward but subtle way. Shooting on 35mm, he has deftly recreated the look of a 1970s film but not a crappy-looking one with muddy colors and ugly contrasts. Period production and costume design contributions are spot-on, as are the musical samplings.  

Production companies: Decibel Films, Cloud Eight Films
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Jessica McNamee, Fred Armisen
Directors: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
Producers: Christian Colson, Danny Boyle, Robert Graf
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Judy Becker
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Pamela Martin
Music: Nicholas Britell
Casting: Kim Davis-Wagner, Justine Arteta
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Rated PG-13, 123 minutes