Battle of the Sexes review – a winner in straight sets

Emma Stone and Steve Carell transport us back to 1973’s famous tennis showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs

The stranger-than-fiction story of how the tennis courts of America became a gender battlefield in the early 70s was brilliantly told in James Erskine and Zara Hayes’s 2013 documentary The Battle of the Sexes. About 90 million people watched Billie Jean King take on self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in the titular 1973 game, which was less a tennis match than a seismic sociological standoff. This dramatisation revisits those carnivalesque events in splendidly springy fashion, achieving the quadruple grand slam feat of being emotionally engaging, politically intriguing, dramatically gripping and frequently very funny.

We open in 1972, with the 28-year-old King (Emma Stone) at the top of her game, feted as the most successful female tennis player of all time. Yet despite drawing enthusiastic audiences, the stars of women’s tennis command a fraction of what their male counterparts earn. “The men are simply more exciting to watch,” King is told. “Stronger, faster, more competitive.” So, with the help of game-changing promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), they take control of their destiny, signing up to the newly established Women’s Tennis Association for a token dollar bill and proceeding to reap the benefits.

Meanwhile, fiftysomething former tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is brooding away in an office, dreaming of getting back in the spotlight. A habitual gambler, hustler and showman, Riggs spies an angle, throwing down the gender-battle gauntlet that is picked up by curtseying top-ranked Margaret Court, resulting in the so-called “Mother’s Day Massacre”.

Against her wishes (“You think I want to join the Bobby Riggs circus?”), it’s left to King to fly the flag that will put women on an equal footing with men. But her life has become complicated by her relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), threatening her marriage and perhaps her game.

Made by Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton from a superb screenplay by Slumdog Millionaire scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy, this terrifically entertaining film generates a rally of responses (tears, cheers, laughter) as it shifts from poignant LGBT love story to powerful human drama against a backdrop of excellently evoked historical upheaval. Beneath the cartoonish, grudge-match surface (“male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist!”), the film-makers find parallels between their alpha antagonists, rivals with conflicting private lives and public personae who become the yin and yang of a media circus beyond their control.

Battle of the Sexes trailer.

Having trained hard for the role, Stone captures both the steely resolve and sturdy presence of King without losing sight of the warmth, style and generosity of spirit that made her an inspirational figure. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren uses 35mm stock to transport us back to the 70s, situating King as a woman of the future, living in a past that is tangible and textural. Scenes between King and Barnett are shot with floating focus and dreamy backlight, as if the film itself is falling in love. At times I was reminded of the powerfully understated intimacy of Todd Haynes’s Carol.

As for Carell, who disappeared into the role of John du Pont in Foxcatcher, his transformation into celebrity-culture prototype Riggs is achieved less by the addition of Bugs Bunny teeth than by a note-perfect capture of Bobby’s slightly startled stance and gambolling gait. Despite claiming to “put the show back in chauvinism”, Riggs is almost pathetically reliant upon the support of his increasingly estranged wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who is portrayed as his much-needed bedrock – emotional and financial. Crucially, the film doesn’t demonise Riggs, of whom King once candidly told me (at the Edinburgh film festival in 2013): “He was one of my heroes and I absolutely respected him.”

Among the ensemble supporting cast, Sarah Silverman is an astringent standout as the silver-streaked Heldman, who tells her players: “You do the tennis – I’ll do the smoking.” Natalie Morales works wonders as Rosie Casals, who winds up in a toe-curling commentator clinch with Howard Cosell, while Alan Cumming sports a high-camp, panto-posh accent (“something’s orrfff”) as designer Ted Tinling, who proudly proclaims: “I give you, for the first time in the history of tennis… colour!”

A typically responsive score by Nicholas Britell juxtaposes the driving force of King’s game with the anxieties lurking beneath Riggs’s brash bravado, lending nuance to a story that seems all the more pertinent in an age in which athletes in America are once again taking action for socio-political change.

Contributor

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Game, set and spats… a grand slam of tennis movies
Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe go head-to-head this autumn. Our critic plays umpire

Geoff Dyer

17, Sep, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Battle of the Sexes review – Emma Stone aces it in tennis's biggest grudge match
Steve Carell is well cast as the ex-champ who tried to prove men’s superiority on court, but Stone calls the shots as women’s No 1 Billie Jean King

Peter Bradshaw

23, Nov, 2017 @3:30 PM

Article image
Race review – racial politics for beginners
A biography of black American athlete Jesse Owens fails to do his story justice

Wendy Ide

05, Jun, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Favourite review – Colman, Weisz and Stone are pitch-perfect
Yorgos Lanthimos’s tragicomedy boasts daring performances from its three female stars and lashings of lust, intrigue and deceit

Mark Kermode

30, Dec, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
La La Land review – worth making a song and dance about
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling lay on the charm in Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s magical love letter to the golden age of Hollywood

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

15, Jan, 2017 @8:15 AM

Article image
First Man review – an inner space odyssey
Damien Chazelle’s drama about Neil Armstrong and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing is a moving tale of loss and peril

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

14, Oct, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Redoubtable review – the follies of Jean-Luc Godard exposed
Michel Hazanavicius’s account of New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard in the days of the Paris riots is sharply irreverent

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

13, May, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Colette review – Keira Knightley shines in gritty, glamorous biopic
Knightley plays a woman reclaiming her voice in Wash Westmoreland’s beautiful biopic of the French author

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

06, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Irresistible review – subtle satire from Jon Stewart
Steve Carell is a political strategist lost in backwoods America in a Capra-esque satire from ex-Daily Show host Jon Stewart

Mark Kermode, Observer fim critic

28, Jun, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Stan & Ollie review – a love letter to cinema’s odd couple
Steve Coogan and John C Reilly excel in this bittersweet film about the twilight years of the great double act

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

13, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM