The real star of “Battle of the Sexes,” (playing now in D.C.-area theaters) the stunning recreation of the historic 1973 tennis match between feminist icon Billie Jean King and male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, may be the superb script by Simon Beaufoy.
Beaufoy, who won the Academy Award for his screenplay for “Slumdog Millionaire” and also wrote “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and the gay-themed “The Full Monty,” weaves together several compelling stories while creating vivid sympathetic characters and exploring complex social and political issues.
Beaufoy’s story starts with the formation of the Virginia Slims Circuit in 1970. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is furious to learn that tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) plans to offer male players much bigger prizes than the female players, even though the women’s matches sell as many tickets as the men’s. Under the canny leadership of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), King and eight other top-ranked female players (collectively called “The Nine”) divide their time between working together to promote the new circuit and competing fiercely on the court.
Billie Jean’s devoted husband Larry (Austin Stowell) is a fervent supporter of his wife’s career, but things begin to change for the tennis star when she falls in love with free-spirited hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
Things become even more complicated when King catches the attention of showman Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former tennis champion who is upset with his low earnings on the senior’s tennis circuit. To prove that men are superior to women, Riggs challenges King to an exhibition match. She refuses, but her Australian rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) takes Riggs up on his offer. Court loses to Riggs and King feels compelled to play Riggs.
The film ends with the climactic “Battle of the Sexes” between Riggs and King at the Houston Astrodome. With commentary by Howard Cosell and King’s colleague Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), record-breaking television audiences watched King soundly defeat Riggs in a match that helped to spark significant social change.
Beaufoy weaves all these strands together with amazing dexterity. He depicts the triangle between Larry, Marilyn and Billie Jean with great sensitivity and an appreciation for the sacrifices both Larry and Marilyn are willing to make to advance Billie Jean’s career and cause. He also presents the troubled marriage between Riggs and his long-suffering wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) with admirable subtlety and understanding. Beaufoy also offers a clear picture of the complex world of professional tennis so that everyone can easily the follow the action on and off the court. The climatic match between Riggs and King is riveting.
Emma Stone (“La La Land” and “The Birdman”) is stunning as Billie Jean King; the actress is physically transformed by the pitch-perfect period costumes by Mary Zophres and her strenuous physical training with the real-life King and a team of tennis coaches. Her fierce performance captures the staggering physical and emotional toll the match took on King. She blazes with pride as she and the other members of “The Nine” take on the male tennis establishment and glows with passion as she discovers her true sexual identity with Marilyn. Stone’s King is fascinating; she is an unrelenting competitor, a generous colleague, a shrewd negotiator, a passionate fighter for equal rights and a dedicated tennis player who automatically sacrifices her personal life for the game.
Steve Carell (“Little Miss Sunshine”) creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Riggs, a born showman and huckster who is driven more by his frantic need for attention than his misogyny. Carell brings all of his well-honed physical comedy skills to the role; he’s delightful when he recreates Riggs’ pre-game antics (which include playing tennis when dressed as Little Bo Peep, complete with sheep).
But he also captures the desperation beneath Riggs’ blend of amusing bluster and obnoxious grandstanding. With able support from Shue, he skillfully shows the dark side to the clown prince of tennis whose pursuit of the media spotlight and endless endorsement deals helps to usher in the modern age of buying and selling sports.
Beaufoy’s thoughtful script also offers well-rounded portraits of King’s other antagonists: Margaret Court and Jack Kramer. Kramer is a dinosaur, but even at his most offensive, Pullman brings a dangerous charm and wit to the tradition-bound character. Likewise, McNamee makes Court’s foolish decision to play Riggs thoroughly understandable.
The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent. Riseborough (who also appeared in “The Birdman”) and Stowell create vivid portraits of King’s love interests. Lewis Pullman (Bill Pullman’s real-life son) is great as Rigg’s son Larry who tries to keep his attention-seeking father on task, and Eric Christian Olson is delightful as Riggs’ indulgent coach.
Sarah Silverman is amusing as the shrewd entrepreneur behind the Virginia Slims Circuit. Alan Cumming is delightful as Ted Tingling, the designer who brought a splash of color to traditional tennis whites and who served as King’s “fairy godfather;” Wallace Langham has some fine moments as his partner Henry. Finally, Natalie Morales is winning as Rosie Casals, the only woman of color on the Virginia Slims Circuit and the commentator who skillfully deflected Howard Cosell’s remarks.
Perhaps most importantly, this excellent movie is a long-overdue cinematic tribute to Billie Jean King and her tireless work to achieve equal rights for women, and more recently, LGBT rights. Working with a strong cast and an outstanding script, husband-and-wife directing team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”) have created a vibrant movie that depicts a successful battle in the fight for human rights while recognizing that the war is still being fought.