In 1973, Billie Jean King fought for equality in tennis, leading a group of female players to boycott a major tournament and subsequently start their own tour. This later became known as the Women’s Tennis Association. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Davis bring their retelling of the events to the big screen with Battle of the Sexes which pits Emma Stone in the leading role. During the tour, King embarks on an affair with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) and is challenged to an exhibition match by Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former Wimbledon champion whose gambling addiction was leading to the breakdown of his marriage.
Despite the title, a lot of the narrative focus is on the lusty lesbian love affair more than anything else. This approach to the screenplay, written by Simon Beaufoy, lends the movie a forbidden romance angle where tennis and the substantial pay-gap take a backseat. A 2013 documentary of the same name delves into the story with more insight, but this adaptation offers little more than Hollywood gloss. Even the tennis match at the end doesn’t live up to the build up, and doesn’t achieve the dramatisation and excitement of a classic sports movie finale. Having played father and daughter on-screen previously in Crazy Stupid Love, Emma Stone and Steve Carell share an enjoyable bond. They are both are on fine-form on this outing and portray their characters with an uncanny likeness, but their stellar performances aren’t enough to make the movie more than generic.
There is nothing definitively negative to say about Dayton and Davis’ version of events, but Battle of the Sexes is very much a paint-by-numbers movie in terms of its scope and its structure. To steal one of Carell’s particularly amusing lines from the script, faux-macho-man Bobby Riggs smugly states that he ‘puts the show back into chauvinism’, but unfortunately this film lacks spectacle and is far from a Grand Slam smash.