In any other year — or perhaps in an alternative timeline — might have come off as a bit of feel good retrospection. Look how far we've come, baby! Thank god we've gotten past those days when men could loudly voice their misogyny and not only suffer no consequences, but actually gain fans from it! But post-2016, it almost feels like allegorical wish fulfillment. If only...if only.
The film compresses several years of tennis legend Billie Jean King's (Emma Stone) life into one, starting out with her parting ways in 1972 with U.S. Open director Jack Turner (Bill Pullman, putting his patented Pullman smirk to good use) after he refuses to offer female U.S. Open winners a payout equal to the men's. Turner is convinced audiences aren't as interested in women's tennis as they are in men's saying, "Men are just more exciting to watch. It's not your fault; it's just biology."
So King partners with World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) to start the Women's Tennis Association, pulling in the sport's top female players, along with an eventual sponsorship from Virginia Slims. These early scenes are among the film's most fun, filled with tacky 1970's hotel rooms, polyester tennis dresses designed by Ted Tinling (Alan Cummings), and a cast of sassy supporting players including Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals and Martha MacIsaac as Peaches Bartkowicz.
Stone, who spends the majority of the movie with minimal makeup and behind unflattering glasses (but thankfully, a more flattering haircut than the real King sported) doesn't exactly look like Billie Jean King, but she's convincing where it counts, with a straightforward, no bs demeanor and a convincing tennis serve.
But for a movie centered on tennis, there's surprisingly little of the sport featured. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton instead focus more on King's off-court life, as she grapples with her closeted sexuality after sparking with her hairdresser, Marilyn Burnett (Andrea Riseborough). King, who was married to Larry "Not That One" King (Austin Stowell) at the time, rightfully fears the impact her coming out might have on him, her career, and her conservative parents. But she also can't deny the attraction, and the two start an affair. (Where that relationship went isn't covered by the film, and you'd never guess from the movie how it would end up.)
Meanwhile, the once legendary tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is 55 years old, and is bored by the corporate job provided to him by the father of his rich wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who perfects resting fed-up-but-still-bemused face). The only fun he has involves gambling with his fellow over-the-hill buddies, in between visits to his shrink and Gamblers Anonymous.
Carell sports some distracting buck teeth, but his casting is otherwise spot on. Riggs, above all else, is a showman and a buffoon, and Carell's comedic timing serves the character well as he spouts off lines like "Sure women have a place on the court; who else would pick up the balls?" Is Riggs really a male chauvinist pig? Well, if there's money to be had in it, then yes.
King doesn't take Riggs's proposed "battle of the sexes" match seriously, despite the potential payout, knowing it really doesn't have anything to do with the sport but with ego and spectacle. But eventually, after Riggs plays a match against Margaret Court (a prickly Jessica McNamee), King begins to see that beating Riggs would be a symbolic victory too big to pass up.
And symbolic is all it really was. King beating Riggs didn't really prove anything. As Billie Jean voices in the film, "women's lib" wasn't (and isn't) about trying to prove women are better than men. It is about challenging assumptions that men are better than women simply because they're men.
It's an assumption women are still having to challenge, 44 years later. Symbolic though it was, Billie Jean King's win was a crowd-pleasing victory that helped bring women's liberation into the living rooms of millions of people, and as a result, some progress was made. If only there was some kind of symbolic victory an accomplished modern day woman could wield, further leading the charge of progress. If only...if onlyBattle of the Sexes