Before Battle of the Sexes, there was When Billie Beat Bobby, the 2001 ABC television movie that first documented that legendary 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
That effort, a deservedly forgotten one at this point, was a sanitized comedy that barely scratched the surface on either of their lives. With the usually great Ron Silver woefully miscast as Riggs and Holly Hunter valiantly trying (to little success) to liven up the proceedings as King, the picture was a pretty piss-poor tribute to one of the all-time great events in sports history.
Now, nearly two decades later, we have a big-budget feature film on King vs. Riggs, headlined by an Oscar-winning actress (Emma Stone), two other Oscar-nominated performers (Steve Carell and Elisabeth Shue) and an Oscar-winning screenwriter to boot (Simon Beaufoy).
The result, Battle of the Sexes, is an improvement over When Billie Beat Bobby, albeit only modestly so. This is not, I suspect, going to be the toast of the Oscars next year.
As the picture, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, opens, World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) leads King and other female tennis players in bolting from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, which has proposed a tournament in which the female winner would get a tinsy winsy fraction of the prize the male winner would receive. They form their own tennis tour, which draws heaps of attention, including from none other than Riggs.
Riggs, once a tennis superstar in the 1940s and now 55 years old and a hopeless gambling addict, is hungry for a comeback. His first "Battle of the Sexes" against the snobby Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) proves a walk in the park. Riggs ups the ante, with a far larger prize at stake, and draws the attention of King, whose personal life has been a topsy turvy one ever since falling head over heels for her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). The rest, of course, is history.
There's a lot to like in Battle of the Sexes. For one, the performances are terrific and convincing, with Stone in far more compelling form here than last year's La La Land. Silverman is a delight as the team's imperious promoter and Austin Stowell is a nice find as Larry, King's unconditionally supportive husband. The picture also perfectly captures the look and feel of the time.
At the same time, there's a tonal uneasiness in the sitcom-level comedy of the Riggs scenes and the tenderness and sensitivity of much of the King material. Other supporting players, especially Shue (as Riggs' perturbed wife) and Bill Pullman (as Jack Kramer, head of the Tennis Association), look completely lost at sea, saddled with thankless, thinly written roles. But perhaps most egregious of all, the big final showdown just isn't as exhilarating or inspiring a sight as it should be, as portrayed here.
The performances and palpable '70s nostalgia make Battle of the Sexes an entertaining-enough endeavor but it might be best just to check out a documentary on Billie vs. Bobby instead.