There are certain fact-based films (Fred Zinnemann’s version of THE DAY OF THE JACKAL comes to mind) which, while their historical outcome is never in question, nonetheless repay repeated viewings due to storytelling, performances and general entertainment value. BATTLE OF THE SEXES can be added to this list: enjoyable throughout, it benefits from perfect casting; Steve Carell as the clownish pre-war Wimbledon champion turned gambler Bobby Riggs, and Emma Stone as Wimbledon champion Billie-Jean King, who took on Riggs in the ‘battle’ of the title at the Houston Astrodome in 1973, for a purse of $100,000.
Concurrent with the build-up to the match are sharply-portrayed scenes of the opponents’ personal lives: at home Riggs is seen as unable to resist a bet; starting at the dinner-table as he challenges his young son over the number of peppercorns in a jar, his habit eventually becomes too much for his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) who kicks him out after a Rolls Royce arrives on the doorstep, the fruits of a card game. Riggs is obliged to move into the car before crashing on his other son’s sofa.
Meanwhile after a run-in over equal pay for women players with tennis legend turned dinosaur Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), King, together with entrepreneur Gladys Heldman (a surprising Sarah Silverman), forms a breakaway women’s tour sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes. During the tour King finds herself falling for hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and they become lovers, much to the mystified dismay of King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell).
To fan the flames of opposition to Women’s Liberation and support his gambling habit, Riggs first challenges the Australian champion Margaret Court (evangelical then and even more vociferously anti-LGBT rights now) and beats her in straight sets. This would seem to leave Billie-Jean King as easy meat, as Court has just beaten her without trouble, taking advantage of King’s deep emotional stress.
So the stage is set and, after exploiting media fascination with the contest to the full (including appearing as a nude centrefold and on a tennis court dressed as Bo Peep, surrounded by sheep), Bobby Riggs fills himself full of performance-enhancing pills before making a gladiatorial entrance at the packed Astrodome, where he’s presented by Billie-Jean King (who herself has entered on a Cleopatra-style float) with a live ‘male chauvinist’ pig. After initial nerves out in the middle (and in front of a TV audience of 90 million), King asserts her superiority and blows Riggs away; to the delight of the Women’s Movement and the chagrin of Jack Kramer, watching in some gentleman’s club, glass of whiskey in hand.
The story is a gift and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris pick it up and run all the way with it. Films such as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE show their talent for comedy set-pieces and here a highlight is Riggs (Steve Carell at his manic best) sabotaging a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous, producing a deck of cards and pushing them off the wagon. The match itself is expertly staged (so often the downfall of sports films), and the whole film as shot by Linus Sandgren has a convincingly 1970s look, overlit and slightly cheesy.
The only problems come with writer Simon Beaufoy’s heavy-with-hindsight characterisations, given the quality of the actors: Pullman’s Jack Kramer is a smooth corporate villain straight out of a John Grisham class-action movie; King’s tennis-fashion designer Teddy Tinling (Alan Cumming) is handed the over-familiar role of the camp but wise counsellor (‘Times change; you’ve changed them’) and most seriously of all, Emma Stone’s Billie-Jean is short-changed on her growing sexual disorientation, given to biting her lip and furrowing her brow in lieu of actually articulated feelings, especially in the scenes with Andrea Riseborough’s equally opaque Marilyn.
Battle of the Sexes screened as part of the 37th annual Cambridge Film Festival.