“Battle of the Sexes,” which opens today and stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as King’s rival Bobby Riggs, will likely net at least one Oscar nomination, as well as prompt discussion on the way home about the parallels between the famous match and last year’s presidential election. It’s your typical Hollywood triumph-of-the-underdog story, but with the added bonus of being based on real life, chronicling how King helped break gender barriers even before she played Riggs (and continued to do so long after).
Steve plays an over-the-hill former tennis star who has a gambling problem (he co-opts a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting to explain to the attendees that they aren’t gamblers, they’re just bad at it) and a wife (Elisabeth Shue) who gets fed up with this and throws him out. (She also points out that since she’s the one financing their lavish lifestyle, his anti-feminist rhetoric is a tad ironic.) Casting around for a way to make some cash and return to the spotlight which he craves even more, he challenges Emma to a match. She refuses for at first she’s busier heading the new women’s tennis association and fielding baffled questions from the media about why in the world women should get paid equally for their tournament participation. After all, as Bill Pullman among other characters points out, women just aren’t as exciting to watch, plus they don’t have as much stamina as the boys. Well, this obviously can’t stand, so after Steve trounces a woman player and starts strutting about, a fuming Emma rekindles the match. But of course, she has a host of obstacles to deal with including sexism from the event arrangers, illness, and most importantly, the fact that she’s fallen in love with the tour hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and both her husband (Austin Stowell)) and her game are negatively affected while she figures things out.
While the outcome of the match is deathly serious for Emma – she sees it as a chance to prove Something Important about gender equality in sports, Steve is simply happy to bask in the attention of the media and fans, while he performs a series of publicity stunts including dressing up as Little Bo Peep and doing a semi-nude photo shoot. (The latter of which apparently really happened.) He also sounds off about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but Emma in a later scene points out the difference between Steve’s chauvinism and someone like Bill’s – Steve’s is for show, while with other characters, it’s more ingrained and uglier. And when Emma triumphs, there’s still a lot of progress to be made – as Alan Cummings (who plays the tour costume designer) points out both for women and for gays. Sometimes as the movie shows, you make your point best by shutting up and competing, but even winning there means there’s still much work to be done afterward.