In 1973, at the height of the women’s liberation movement, former tennis great Bobby Riggs went up against current world number one women’s tennis pro Billie Jean King, in a match that would go down as a landmark moment in the quest for equal rights for women in the US.
A new movie, “Battle of the Sexes” (in select theatres Friday, wide release next week), delves into the match with a feel-good Hollywood vibe that touches on issues that, sadly, are still relevant 44 years later.
Perhaps the best thing directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) did in looking back on the spectacle of the match was expand it beyond the tennis. Though we see right from the start of the movie that King (played by Emma Stone) is headstrong in getting women tennis players the same money men get on the tour — even quitting the Association of Tennis Professionals and starting a new female circuit to prove her point — she’s also attracted to women.
This aspect of King’s life takes up much of the first half of the movie. King, the face of women’s tennis, spends most of her off-the-court time with a hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). And the last thing she’ll seriously consider is the middle-of-the-night call from retired pro and gambling addict Bobby Riggs (Carell), who proposes an exhibition match between the two.
Things turn more dramatic in the movie when King watches Riggs destroy her tennis colleague Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in the first “Battle of the Sexes” match. Feeling it’s her obligation to redeem her sport, and the women who play it, King agrees to play Riggs.
Dayton and Faris get us into the setting by using archival footage — a highlight is celebrities and tennis players of the era giving their thoughts on the match and who they are rooting for. The male-superiority comments come fast and furious, but the most shocking clip is then up-and-coming tennis player Chris Evert saying she thinks Riggs is going to beat King.
Carell plays Riggs perfectly. Lighthearted, but not over-the-top comedic, his portrayal is a guy who thirsts for the limelight, and will do some very chauvinistic things to get there.
There are also strong supporting performances by Sarah Silverman playing Gladys Heldman, who helps create the Virginia Slims Tour with King and other female tennis pros; Alan Cumming, playing the gay costume designer who is really the only person King can talk truthfully to; and Bill Pullman, who plays the perfect heel Jack Kramer, a former pro who in the 1970s started the Association of Tennis Professionals, and in the movie is King’s biggest adversary in building up women’s tennis.
But the standout in the movie is Stone as King. The movie is clearly on her shoulders, and though she in no way engulfs herself physically into the character (in a lot of ways it’s just Emma Stone in a wig), it’s the strong writing (by Simon Beaufoy) and direction that makes Stone believable in the role, which is very different from what she’s played in the past.
Perhaps it’s because this is the first time Stone is playing a real person, but she can’t go back to her comfortable comedic tricks to pull in the audience. She plays King with the perfect blend of the brooding she had in “Birdman” (toned down from being way over-the-top in that movie), and the vulnerability that earned her an Oscar for “La La Land,” to show the conflict and pressure King faces at this time in her life both personally and professionally.
That character development, and a thrilling ending when King and Riggs finally play (trust me, it’s exciting regardless if you know the outcome), leads to a movie that will leave you with a good feeling coming out of the theatre.
And that’s all we’re really asking for these days.
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