Engaging and sunny as far as it goes, “Battle of the Sexes” is a two-headed biopic reluctant to complicate its coming-out story with too many details.
This will not be a problem for most audiences. Collectively, the “Battle of the Sexes” team knows how to please a crowd. The directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made the wish fulfillment smash “Little Miss Sunshine.” The screenwriter Simon Beaufoy wrote the wish fulfillment smash “Slumdog Millionaire.” Emma Stone, who plays sports legend Billie Jean King, broke hearts all over the place in the wish fulfillment fantasy (bittersweet division) “La La Land.”
Stone’s co-star, Steve Carell, boasts a career born in comedy and now conversant in a wide range of seriocomic and dramatic projects. Here he plays the inveterate hustler and former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, who declared war on the “lib thing” (aka the women’s movement) and women’s sports in particular. Riggs challenged King to a best-of-five match when she was up and he was down and the world was primed for a gender-war gimmick with teeth.
Deep inside the circus of the Sept. 20, 1973, “battle of the sexes” — held at the Houston Astrodome and watched by 50 million people — the stakes were high. While it was happening, King’s off-court life was consumed by a budding affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, while King’s marriage to promoter and business partner Larry King had many years left to go.
This is the emotional focus of “Battle of the Sexes,” the side of King’s story left out of the 2001 TV movie “When Billie Beat Bobby.” In the early scenes of “Battle of the Sexes,” King has conquered the 1972 U.S. Open, but the patriarchal U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (Bill Pullman oozes avuncular privilege as its figurehead, former tennis champ Jack Kramer) is throwing most of the prize money to the male players.
King and the other female players walk out and establish the Women’s Tennis Association. Brokered by World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (played in the film by Sarah Silverman), the Virginia Slims tour is born. (Screenwriter Beaufoy compresses the timeline here.)
All this coincided with the run-up to and aftermath of the 1972 Title IX law, designed to prohibit sex discrimination in federally funded education…