Early on in the Fox Searchlight release “Battle of the Sexes”, former tennis great Bobby Riggs (played to near perfection by Steve Carell) finds himself in a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. As he introduces himself, he stuns those attending by saying “Life’s a gamble. That’s what makes it a thrill”, before proceeding to tell his fellow addicts that what they really need to do is a figure out a way to stop losing, not stop gambling.
That line sums a lot about this very well done film and the actions of its larger than life characters in Riggs and tennis icon Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone). For indeed King and Riggs were both gamblers, not only for competing in the most publicized tennis match of all time back in 1973, but also in their personal and professional lives.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of “Little Miss Sunshine” based on a script by Simon Beaufoy, do a great job of condensing several distinct, but important story lines that all lead to that showdown in Houston watched by nearly 90 million people worldwide.
King along with Gladys Heldman (played with verve and smart one liners by Sarah Silverman) helped formed the Women’s Tennis Association, in response to Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman) only offering them an 1/8 of what the men were being paid at a joint Southern California tournament. Leaving the security of the main tour then, along with possibly not being able to compete at the Grand Slams, was a huge gamble for King and her fellow pioneers known as the “Original 9” who all signed $1.00 contracts.
Riggs, a former US Open and Wimbledon champion, despite having settled down to a respectable life with his second wife (played by Elizabeth Shue) hungers for more tennis fame and and an easy bet wherever he can find one, usually in crazy pick up games at his local club. Riggs then starts pursuing King to take him on in the man versus woman match that coincides with the growing women’s liberation movement. King turns him down initially, but Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee) takes him up on the $35,000 offer, only to be beaten easily in straight sets. After that loss, King agrees to take on Riggs, not to prove that a woman can beat a man in tennis, but that women everywhere deserve respect and the same opportunities as men. Riggs gets his coveted bet, but loses his wife in the process who can’t deal with his gambling anymore.
On top of all that, King though married to her husband (played by Austin Stowell), finds herself attracted to a hairdresser she meets while on tour named Marilyn Barnett (played by Andrea Riseborough). Despite her growing realization that she is gay, King knows that to reveal that part of her personal life could jeapordize her career and the nascent tour she helped create.
While Stone becomes King with her performance, Carell truly is Riggs, right down to his mannerisms and tone of voice. Both actors show the very public and private pressures King and Riggs each faced leading up to the biggest match, in terms of overall attention and potential outcome for both, in their careers. Riggs comes across as a clown and a self-professed male chauvinist pig, but there’s always a wink in his eye that all of the bluster truly is a show. A show that King might not have wanted to be part of, but ended up agreeing to realizing that the massive publicity was exactly what her growing women’s tour needed, even if it meant possibly losing in front of the whole world.
Billie Jean King herself has said this is a bio-pic and not a documentary, so many true details are left out or shortened. But this film, with its pinpoint style, fashion, and cinematography, definitely captures the essence of that time and the events that led to so much of what professional tennis is today.
While the ending of that famous match is well known, the satisfying and emotional ending of this film definitely makes “Battle of the Sexes” a must-see, not just for tennis fans, but for anyone interested in how Billie Jean King became not just a tennis pioneer, but a pioneer for all people, by proving that in life, sometimes, the sweetest rewards are gained when you are willing to risk it all.