Battle of the Sexes is a political commentary wrapped in a history lesson holding at its core an entertaining and spellbinding narrative. I figured that Billy Jean King had defeated Bobby Riggs, or why make the movie but I really wasn’t absolutely sure about what happened. Their 1973 match and its buildup are as legendary as Cosell and Ali interviews. Emma Stone as BJK and Steve Carell as Riggs pull off the tennis stars’ volatile on-screen chemistry flawlessly.
The true nemesis in the film turns out not to be the marketing genius and buffoon Bobby Riggs, who by all accounts was a dedicated gambler above all. But rather Margaret Court, who as one of the greatest tennis players ever, was beaten in straight sets by Riggs before BJK stomped him. Court went on to be a Pentecostal Christian minister in her home country of Australia and staunch enemy of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The film has no qualms grinding that axe and would fit in easily as the Opening or Closing Night film at Outfest or Framline. Speaking of history lessons, Outfest and Framline are two of the premiere LGBT film festivals in the U.S. and have been around for 35 and 40 years respectively.
Battle of the Sexes itself is sensual and fun, well-crafted with great period touches like coin-op TVs in airport lounges and excellent wardrobe and costumes like BJK and Riggs’ glasses and fancy kicks. The film is helmed deftly by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the team that delivered with the classic Little Miss Sunshine). They know how to handle tension and drama. They keep perfect continuity with the period without falling into sappy nostalgia. The Directors also keep the various storylines with BJKs personal and professional life and Riggs’ own drama with his gambling addiction, problems with his wife — played expertly by the great Elisabeth Shue — and the pressure of his resurgent career as a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig. Every time Steve Carell appeared, I laughed out loud. I haven’t appreciated him as much since his brilliant performance in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I thought the casting was spot on except for Fred Armisen who really should be starring in his own films by now. As Riggs’ restrained pill-pushing dealer Fred is unable to unleash his true comic genius. Or perhaps the role would have been more in tune with someone more intense like John Goodman. However, a wonderful turn was made by the great Scottish-American Alan Cumming as Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, the flamboyant, big hearted and empathetic stylist to the women on the Virginia Slims tour. One of the best lines is in the last act, right after her victory, Ted turns to BJK and says “Times change. You should know, because you changed them.”