The legendary “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was, to be sure, a circus and a spectacle. But it was more than simply that. In the years leading up to the event, King took a stand against tour promoter Jack Kramer’s refusal to bridge the pay gap for men’s and women’s tournament champions, leading to the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association. The King-Riggs exhibition, still the most-watched tennis match in history, was the symbolic apex of the struggle for women’s equality in a sport that was, like so many others, male-dominated. All this while King embarked upon her first same-sex relationship and very quietly introduced that relationship to the public.
That serves as a high-level plot synopsis for Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes, a chronicling of all of the above events and still more, something of a jaunty travelogue of the ‘70s-era sports environment, pop culture, and sexual politics. Sounds like a complicated tumult, right? It certainly was back then, and still is in this current form, a relatively lean 120-minute feature that ponders so many ideas and covers so much ground that it can never fully focus for more than a few minutes at a time. Those ideas are so humanely relevant, and the ground covered with such skill, that the film remains wonderful and entertaining from open to close. But there is greatness here that could’ve been sustained if only the filmmakers gave themselves more room to breathe.
Emma Stone plays King, at the peak of her greatness in the early ‘70s. Steve Carell plays Riggs, well past his own prime, a 55-year-old huckster with a penchant for gambling. The film charts the collision course that led these two disparate figures to square off, following the varied personal dynamics for both. It was a period of tremendous self-actualization for King, who used her platform as the world’s top player to fight for gender equality both inside the sporting world and out. It was also during this time that she first tentatively explored her homosexuality, forming a relationship with WTA hair stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while still married to business partner Larry (Austin Stowell). Riggs, ever the self-promoting provocateur, was struggling to stay in the spotlight while also struggling to sustain his relationship with wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who senses her husband’s affection for gambling may exceed his affection for her.
Such acute focus remains on each character’s individual stories that the subject of their eponymous battle isn’t broached in earnest until a considerable portion of the running time has elapsed; in truth, the “battle” of the title extends well beyond the literal tennis match that serves as the film’s climax. There are other implications swirling amid the lead-up to the King-Riggs face-off, from the struggle to sustain an independent women’s tennis organization to the institutionalized sexism within the sports media. It’s the most epic canvas ever surmounted by Faris and Dayton, whose Little Miss Sunshine became an Oscar player in 2006 largely because its of intimate human comedy. The directing team brings a similar intimacy to this material while simultaneously exploring the more expansive social environment of the time period, two insular character studies woven through a broader thematic pastiche.
Their strategies for navigating this material are impressive, alternating between the warmth of close-up human drama and more lilting sequences of ensemble comedy with an Altmanesque roaming camera. The time shifts are charted via the rollicking rhythms of peak ‘70s pop-rock, paired with images of striking resonance, captured by the reigning Oscar winner for Best Cinematography, Linus Sandgren. The performances across-the-board are wonderful; Stone in particular will likely be in Best Actress contention for the second year in a row. What’s missing is the connective tissue that would make all of this wonderful material coalesce into the masterpiece it so desperately wants to be. As the film races through years’ worth of true life drama, it can barely stop itself long enough to provide adequate context for the powerful moments it wants to create. It feels like the moments that would’ve made Battle of the Sexes truly special were left on the cutting room floor, sacrificed for the sake an arbitrary 120-minute running time.
And yet, the film still works, in no small part due to its all-too-unfortunate relevance. For the sake of context, the King-Riggs match took place 40 years ago. Here we are now, in 2017, less than one year removed from what amounted to a presidential Battle of the Sexes, and after four decades of supposed progress, the results weren’t so inspirational. Now more than ever we must fight on, and Billie Jean King’s is a sterling model to follow.