The audience knows how the story is going to end as soon as they start watching this fact-based drama…
At the very beginning of the movie, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is being announced as the winner of her one-off 1973 tennis match in Houston against Bobby Riggs.
King, was 29 at the time and a multiple champion. Riggs, a former Wimbledon and US Open winner, was 55 but claimed he could still beat any top female player. In front of a sell-out crowd and an estimated 90 million TV viewers around the world, King triumphed.
So the interest here lies not in the outcome, but how and why the contest was made in the first place, and what motivated both players to take part in match-up in which feminism, sexism, sport and celebrity collided in a gaudy $100,00-winner-takes all spectacle.
Riggs (Steve Carrell) comes across as a very light-hearted and optimistic guy, who loves practical jokes and has a gambling addiction.
He is married to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), whose well-to-do father sets him up with a job. However, this schemer and dreamer has neither the patience nor the motivation to sit behind a desk.
Carrell plays him outstandingly well. He captures Riggs’ essential childishness; the immaturity of a former sports star who has found it hard to settle after hanging up his racquet, and eventually exasperates his wife so much that she leaves his for a “man”.
History sees Riggs as a chauvinist but, as played by Carrell, his main motivation wasn’t to degrade the opposite sex, it was about hustling as much money as possible by challenging and beating King.
King, already a champion of women’s rights in both sport and society in general, has her own issues to deal with, not least her sexuality.
Stone portrays her as being single-minded and ruthless when it comes to tennis. Her husband, Larry (Austin Stowe), says at one point: “If you get in between her and her game, you’ll be gone.”
But away from the court, King is conflicted and cheats on Larry after falling in love with her hairdresser (Andrea Risborough).
It’s here that the plot puts some top spin on the actual truth of King’s personal life at the time, in a bid to compress to key aspects of the professional, public and private into a two-hour running time.
So this is definitely not a sports-based movie where the focus is mainly on sport.
Its main drama happens off court, and takes place against the rich backdrop of burgeoning feminism, the struggle for equality and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s.
That doesn’t mean that ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is an outright winner, however. At times, it is a little sluggish and uninteresting, but things start to pick up as the tensions build ahead of the climatic big game.
Of course, this is not a film where the outcome is in any doubt – the story is a true one, and well documented. But showing King in her prime winning in three sets against a guy in his 50s is not the point here.
It’s a character-led piece, and what’s going on in the minds and lives of its two main protagonists carries far more weight than what eventually happens when they meet across the net in Texas.