“Battle of the Sexes” (Fox Searchlight), about the famed 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, is that rare movie that successfully combines biography, sports and queer subject matter for a thoroughly entertaining and educating experience. First and foremost, credit goes to co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Oscar-winner Little Miss Sunshine). Even though we know the outcome (King walloped unrepentant male chauvinist pig Riggs), they managed to make it feel fresh and exhilarating.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) also deserves his due, even with some of the liberties he took in glamorizing the story for the big screen. The fact that it’s handled with a large dose of humor, as well as sensitivity, prevents “Battle of the Sexes” from feeling as misogynistic and hopeless as the 2016 presidential election.
“Battle of the Sexes” begins in 1972, when King (Emma Stone) was a reigning U.S. tennis champion and the most successful women’s tennis player of all time. Even Richard Nixon took time out of his corrupt day to call her and congratulate her on her triumph. Regardless of her successes, King was paid far below what she was worth. When King and “World Tennis Magazine” publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) joined forces to confront tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), little did they realize what they would be setting into motion. In addition to founding the Women’s Tennis Association, they were also able to secure corporate sponsorship (ironically Virginia Slims cigarettes) and stand up for themselves against the men who were determined to keep them subservient to them.
The focus on the personal lives of King and Riggs is what truly gives “Battle of the Sexes” its emotional artillery. The buffoonish Riggs (Steve Carell), long past his tennis glory days, is stuck in an office job in a company run by the wealthy father of his second (and third) wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). He’s a gambling addict and doesn’t seem too concerned that, even though he’s a loving father, his marriage is on the rocks. Seeing King on TV only exacerbates the situation, leading him to return to tennis with a challenge to stuffy Australian tennis pro Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), whom he trounces and humiliates.
King’s story is the heart of the film. Married to Larry (Austin Stowell), who was by her side throughout her meteoric rise, King confronts her same-sex attraction when she meets L.A.-based hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The sexual tension of their first meeting and the intimacy they soon explore is a reminder of how different things were for queer people more than 40 years ago. Stone’s performance is breathtaking, culminating in a moving locker-breakdown scene. The gay Greek chorus of tennis couturiers Ted (Alan Cumming) and Henry (Wallace Langham) provide additional queer perspective and wisdom. Rating: A-