US tennis pro Billie Jean King’s 1973 match against former champ and self-styled male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs was a circus that captured the attention of the world, but also served to highlight the disparity in pay and respect that existed between male and female players at the time.
This hugely entertaining dramatisation opens will Billie Jean (Emma Stone) at the top of her game, having just won $100,000 in prize money that gets her a call from President Nixon and raises the ire of sexist USLTA boss Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman).
Determined to address the issue of gender equality in sport, Billie Jean and her sister players stage their own all-girl tournament, which leads to the 55-year-old Riggs’s proposal to play Billie Jean in an exhibition match for big prize money – and the opportunity to prove that men are indeed superior on the court.
All the while, the married Billie Jean is grappling with her newfound feelings for hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – a relationship that’s viewed with open distaste by our own Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), of course – but recognises the advantage that Riggs’s offer represents to raise awareness of the gender divide and strike a blow for women’s lib.
Danny Boyle was originally slated to direct, but the Little Miss Sunshine duo of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton prove a far better fit, bringing the eccentric characters and feel-good factor of their earlier hit to this ebullient romp through the early seventies, with the rampant sexism and dinosaur attitudes of the period providing lots of laughs. More sobering though is that many of the issues addressed here are still being battled today.
Emma Stone is simply ace as Billie Jean King in the kind of transformative performance that might see her nominated for another Oscar. Carell is in fine form, too, playing Riggs as the exaggerated buffoon that he is – a chronic gambler who’s desperately trying to remain relevant despite his best years being behind him.
The supporting cast are equally good, including Sarah Silverman as Billie Jean’s chain-smoking business partner, Elizabeth Shue as Riggs’s estranged wife, and Austin Stowell as Billie Jean’s conflicted but loving husband, Larry.
The final scores in the Battle of the Sexes are in the history books if you want spoilers, but the real victory is what Billie Jean managed to achieve for gender equality and gay athletes.
In cinemas: September 28, 2017
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Bill Pullman
Directed by: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Check out our interview with Emma Stone.