Pulling off a film based on real events is no easy task, particularly when the audience is already aware of the outcome. This is especially true in the new film “Battle of the Sexes,” which explores the events leading up to the iconic 1973 tennis match of the same name between 29-year-old women’s tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Moviegoers with a general awareness of tennis history will know exactly how the film ends; anyone who isn’t familiar with the landmark King-Riggs match can watch its actual footage to see how it all went down.
Thankfully, “Battle of the Sexes” is less occupied with the end result than it is with the individual journeys and arcs of its protagonists. By focusing on the story behind the momentous match, the film allows us to understand its significance to a greater extent, all while taking its audience on a hilarious, heartfelt and inspiring ride to the championship.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Ruby Sparks”), the film examines two parallel stories: one of established tennis idol Billie Jean King, fresh off of multiple Grand Slam victories, and one of retired world No. 1 Bobby Riggs, who is devoid of the attention he once received in his prime.
King struggles to balance her professional life — her dicey boycott of the U.S. Open based on its extreme gender pay gap — with her personal life — her extramarital affair with her female hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Meanwhile, Riggs is caught in a state of tedium through his desk job and strained marriage, and he finds thrill only through habitual gambling.
While King attempts to keep her sexual identity under wraps from intrusive media, Riggs, keenly watching King’s success, challenges her to a match with the intention of reclaiming his lost fame. This, of course, was the infamous “Battle of the Sexes,” which created a rapid and vast media frenzy and garnered the scrutiny of contentious fans across the globe.
The script, by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), is remarkable in its portrayal of King’s and Riggs’ personal lives, with a strong focus on the tension in their relationships with their respective significant others — King with Marilyn and her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) and Riggs with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Not only do these relationships serve as the film’s primary source of drama, but they also allow Stone and Carell to deliver thoroughly complex and moving performances.
Stone, in particular, brings an extraordinary level of emotional depth in all aspects of her portrayal of King, from her undying passion for her sport to her ardent work on behalf of the women’s liberation movement, making King an easy protagonist to root for. Carell, on the other hand, effectively humanizes Riggs in all of his flagrant arrogance and misogyny. His actions are nonetheless inexcusable, but Carell’s performance sheds light on the personal insecurities that created the absurd, self-proclaimed chauvinist who wore an inflammatory yellow “Sugar Daddy” jacket to the televised match.
Besides Stone and Carell, “Battle of the Saxes” features a plethora of familiar faces in supporting roles, from Sarah Silverman as women’s tennis promoter Gladys Heldman to Alan Cumming as King’s uniform designer, Ted Tinling. Unfortunately, the film’s focus on its central duo leaves little room for character development in the periphery — besides King and Riggs, other characters come off as one-note and one-sided: feminist or chauvinist.
But part of the charm of the film is its pure simplicity, which aids in its unabashed celebration of King’s success story. “Battle of the Sexes” may have benefited from complex performances from the supporting cast, as well as a more mature and profound take on sexism in sports, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the build-up to the illustrious showdown in the film’s climax. It’s a testament to the empowering story that helmed the film, that of an inspiring role model and her symbolic achievement for women — game, set, match.