Men’s tennis advocate Jack Kramer once opined that no one was better at delivering lobs than Bobby Riggs. I’m assuming he was speaking of the Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion’s play on the court. But lobs — of the verbal variety — are also what Riggs serves best off the court in “Battle of the Sexes,” the snazzy, albeit sanitized, recounting of the buoyant chauvinist’s most humiliating defeat at the hands of fellow legend — and noted feminist — Billie Jean King before a worldwide TV audience of 90 million in 1973.
For the film’s thinly disguised purposes, Riggs is played by Steve Carell, and I can’t think of a better match between actor and role. If you were alive 44 years ago this month, when the 55-year-old “tennis hustler” stepped onto the makeshift court in Houston’s cavernous Astrodome to face the 29-year-old King, you’ll recognize how unnervingly well Carell reincarnates everything that made Riggs, Riggs. The walk, the infectious smile and the swagger of an addicted gambler always having his eyes focused on the next money-making scheme. It’s equal parts Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats in “The Hustler” and Bill Murray’s Ernie McCracken in “Kingpin” — funny, but unnerving in its obsession.
Yet, Carell isn’t even the best thing in the latest collaboration between directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team responsible for the Oscar-winning “Little Miss Sunshine.” That would be reigning Oscar-winner Emma Stone, who daringly ditches her wholesome shtick to challenge herself by playing King, a reluctant liberator dealing with the insurmountable pressures of starting a new tennis league in protest of women players not receiving equal pay while also betraying her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), by embarking on a lesbian affair with her seductive hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough in a break-out turn).
Like a tennis match, Dayton and Faris bounce back and forth into the tumultuous personal lives of Riggs and King as Simon Beaufoy’s tightly constructed script builds toward their climactic showdown. Some of it is over the top and too on the nose, but mostly “Battle of the Sexes” sets the right tone, even when it’s pulling its punches by making King and Barnett’s sex scenes family friendly. Still, give credit to the directors for their ability to pump a lot of carnal steam into one of the film’s best moments when Barnett makes her treatment of King’s shag haircut a potent aphrodisiac.
I can’t say for sure, but I’m betting the reason that little snippet works so well is due to having a female behind the camera. It’s hard to imagine Danny Boyle, who was originally slated to direct, finding that same eroticism in such a simple act. Then that’s the beauty of a Dayton-Faris film. As a team, they hold a deep understanding of the differences of how men and women think and feel. So tapped into the male and female psyches, I’m betting Dayton handled all of Riggs’ scenes and Faris all of King’s. And that depth of perception in each character is what gives “Battle of the Sexes” its lifeblood.
It was just a mere 44 years ago, but to paraphrase the famous slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes, the ironic sponsor of King’s upstart women’s tour, “we’ve come a long way, baby,” both in terms of gay and female rights. But what haunts is also how much hasn’t changed, as the movie can’t help but remind how during last year’s presidential election Donald J. Trump harassed and bullied Hillary Clinton very much the same way Riggs taunted King. And then as now, the woman may have won the match, but the spoils go to the auspices of the chauvinist rulers. Lock that up.
King did go on to be a pioneer in the women’s rights movement and instrumental in eventually making it possible for female tennis players to earn the same purse as men, but the film suggests the summer of 1973 drained much of King’s spirit. A change that Stone captures beautifully when we see her sitting alone in an Astrodome locker room after felling Riggs. She is crying, head buried in a towel as the enormity of the pressure from founding her tennis league, her failing marriage and her closeted love for Marilyn all catch up with her. It’s a powerful scene, undercut somewhat by her gay dress designer (Alan Cumming) entering the frame to deliver a bromide about how some day they will no longer need to hide their sexuality. Talk about gilding the lily.
Same with what’s going on in the other locker room, where a dejected Riggs is visited by his estranged wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who silently assures him all is not lost. It’s these over-calculated scenes that prevent a good movie from becoming a great one. Instead of so much emphasis on the obvious, you wish Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) had dug a bit deeper, like that climactic scene of King breaking down. Perhaps he felt too much drama might have weighed on the film’s happy-go-lucky tone, nicely set by Carell’s career-best performance.
The Oscar nominee (“Foxcatcher”) is fully in his realm as Riggs, a shrewd clown who disarms you with his perceived foolishness before taking you for everything you’ve got, including a tricked-out Rolls Royce. Carell clearly has a ball re-enacting Riggs’ on-court antics, often donning outrageous costumes and incorporating props like sheep and dogs, whose leashes he holds in his left hand as he batters yet another suckered mark with the racket in his right. It’s a lot of candied-colored fun, as are most of the movie’s riches of fine supporting actors, from Sarah Silverman as World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman, to Fred Armisen as Riggs’ vitamin pusher, to Bill Pullman as the aforementioned Jack Kramer, a chauvinist tennis promoter outspoken in his belief that women players deserved no more than a 12th of what the men earn. Oh, and keep an eye out for Pullman’s real-life son, Lewis, as Riggs’ flustered son, Larry.
The film, though, belongs to Stone. She perfectly captures every facet of King’s personality, which means she’s a demon on the court and a shy, deeply caring woman off. Stone embraces that dichotomy and weaponizes it in making her portrayal of King sear into your mind. It’s game, set and match, as she capably fills Billie Jean’s colorful shoes with a performance that serves nothing but aces.
“Battle of the Sexes”
Cast includes Steve Carell, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Pullman and Sarah Silverman.
(PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.)