September 20, 1973, at the Houston Astrodome, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played a tennis match that meant a great deal to the 50 million U.S. spectators, 90 million across the globe. As Billie Jean said at this year's Telluride premiere of Battle of the Sexes, she felt she'd seriously hurt women's fight for equality if she lost.
We know she won in glorious fashion. What we don't know are the behind the scene crises that husband and wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris so intelligently illuminate in their multidimensional portraits of Billie Jean and Bobby. King, then 29 years old, and Riggs, 55, both tennis legends, embraced the moment, enjoying the circus while understanding its import. In fact, before this famous match, fighting for pay equity, Billie Jean and eight other top women tennis players defied the US Lawn Tennis Association, presided over by a chauvinistic Jack Kramer, and initiated the Virginia Slims Circuit.
In this milieu, it would have been temptingly easy to demonize the compulsive gambler Riggs. But he, like any good con man, has a charm and energy that complicates his sexist persona, and the film captures that. For her part, while King had steely determination on the court, she was adrift and confused at the time in terms of her sexual orientation. At Telluride, King elaborated, saying that tennis was her retreat, for when competing, everything else fell away and that was all she had to focus on.
In The Battle of the Sexes, from the art direction (and all the awful clothes) to the language to the film stock and even the old Fox movie logo--every detail expresses the '70s. In some ways, it looks so dated, and in others, it seems only superficial details have changed, holding up a mirror to today. That's one reason Faris and Dayton worked hard to get original Howard Cosell commentary, to show how important it still is to learn to respect women. And notably, King's supportive husband Larry, a prince of a guy, is never depicted as mean spirited.
As King, Emma Stone has her walk, verbal inflections, and spirit. Steve Carell is a marvelous chameleon who shape shifts through Bobby's moods. Providing superb support are Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Bill Pullman, and Elisabeth Shue. Battle of the Sexes is a feat of terrific storytelling with important subject matter. At area cinemas.