Emma Stone and Steve Carell throw themselves into an epic tennis showdown that’s equal parts funny and unsettling.
‘Male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist!’ That’s how ex-tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) pitches his big idea to women’s champ Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) in ‘Battle of the Sexes’, a movie based on a story that would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. The Riggs vs King tennis showdown played for a global TV audience in 1973; here it’s mined for both laughs and drama by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. While it doesn’t quite hit the highs of their ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable watch with a terrific cast.
Stone leads the way as King, the no-nonsense star who takes on the sexist US Lawn Tennis Association after it announces a prize fund that’s a staggering eight times more for men than women. Launching her own women’s tournament with the aid of organiser Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), King goes on tour. Meanwhile, former world number one Bobby Riggs is struggling with a gambling addiction and hoping to hustle his way back into the spotlight. The early ’70s was a time of showboating self-promotion in TV sports, which was going through its brash Muhammad Ali-inspired phase, not to mention a rapidly changing time for women’s rights. What better opportunity, Riggs arrogantly assumed, for proving that men are better at sport than women?
It’s a fun set-up with a rousing finale that broadly compensates for a saggy middle (at two hours, it feels a little too long). But despite its inspiring feminist message, it’s the LGBT+ angle that proves the most compelling, as King quietly discovers her sexuality with hairdresser Marilyn (a wonderful Andrea Riseborough). The scenes between the two women are beautifully handled, their attraction as palpable as King’s dilemma: Not only was she famous in a less-accepting era, she was also closeted, and married to a man. Carell’s cartoonish antics are funny enough, but the two women are the tale’s real champions.
Cast and crew
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3.6 / 5
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Ever since La La Land Emma Stone has been my girl crush. She can do musicals (see above), teen comedy (Easy A), adult rom com (Crazy Stupid Love) & serious drama as in this case. She’s pretty unrecognisable & gives Billie Jean a real grit & determination yet she remains a class act & has such self belief you’re cheering her on. Loved all the period touches. Amazing that these events all took place in such recent history. My favourite part was the picture montage at the end proving that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!
I enjoyed it overall, but felt it glossed over too much of Riggs' motivations, previous similar match and also the well-known theory that the match was essentially to pay off his gambling debts. I think they did Billie Jean King justice but made Riggs too one-dimensional. Not as good as Little Miss Sunshine, but a good way to spend a couple of hours.