"Male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist" was the proposal. In a late-night phone call, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) quickly tells Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) that her pins are smooth, but the sentiment — sexism vs. feminism — still stuck. She's the number one women's tennis player, riding high from a string of grand slam titles. He's a former champion well past his prime, with a fondness for gambling, talking and self-promotion. It should come as no surprise that King initially turned Riggs down.
Why she changed her mind, what she was fighting for, and how their exhibition game made history informs Battle of the Sexes, a recreation of the match of the same name. Reuniting Stone and Carell after Crazy, Stupid, Love, and Carell with Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, King and Riggs' famous tussle inspires an engaging, entertaining effort — one that's as much about the showdown at its centre as it is the struggles it stood for. Pitting a boorish headline grabber against a woman striving for equality, and throwing in Australian tennis player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) as one of the villains, its contents are also incredibly relevant today.
Battle of the Sexes introduces King doing the two things she'll become best known for: smashing it on the court and thrashing it out over prize money. Fresh from victory at Wimbledon, she demands the same amount of cash for women as is given to men. When US tennis association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) declines, she starts her own competition with World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Enter Riggs, a locker room bet that he could beat any female player, and a public promise to put ladies back in the kitchen and the bedroom. At first King refuses to become part of the spectacle, but when Riggs plays Court and wins, the standing of women's sport is on the line. It's estimated that 90 million people watched the match worldwide.
With its '70s-style visuals and upbeat attitude, a perfectly fine sports biopic could've easily resulted from simply pitting King's sympathetic protagonist against Riggs' over-the-top foil. But that's not quite what Battle of the Sexes sets out to do. With King also the first prominent female athlete to come out as a lesbian, her relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) forms part of the story, as scripted by Slumdog Millionaire Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy. It's sensitively explored, evoking the excitement of falling for someone new as well as the confusion plaguing the married King. It also makes the parallels between her professional and personal troubles clear — and there's a reason that the prickly, naysaying Court makes such an apt inclusion.
Fresh from her La La Land glory, Stone arrives ready to serve up a powerhouse performance. Swinging a racket rather than singing up a storm, she paints a compelling portrait of a woman driven by what's right and fair, even as she's wrestling with her own turmoil. Carell, meanwhile, has fun putting "the show back in chauvinist", although you'll never forget that you're watching Carell. Then again, perhaps that's fitting. King fought for all women to be treated equally, and later for LGBTIQ rights. Riggs, on the other hand, just wanted to get back to the spotlight.