In 1973, a showboating tennis match became a cultural battleground when Billie Jean King agreed to go three sets with Bobby Riggs, after Riggs had defeated noted player Margaret Court in a similar series. Riggs infamously dived into his villain persona, belittling all female tennis players publicly in a fit of callow showmanship, only to be stumped when King ultimately bested Riggs in the series. And for all of the mitigating circumstances involved (Riggs’ emphasis on pageantry, King having a 26-year age advantage coming into the game), it’s nevertheless one of the first major cultural moments in which America was able to either rally behind an unlikely feminist hero or a carnivalesque braggart. It would not be the last.
It’s one of those moments that lives at the ever-popular American intersection of sport and politics, and in the upcoming film Battle of the Sexes, the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) will look back on that famed September 1973 game and the media circus around it. Emma Stone and Steve Carell co-star as King and Riggs, with the film looking to frame King as an unlikely public face for the rising tides of equality and Riggs as a huckster who bet his reputation (and a lot of money) on his ability to back his grandstanding up on the courts. The first trailer, released today by Fox Searchlight, goes big on the game’s grander social implications, even as it glances at who King and Riggs were when the cameras and mics were turned off.
It’s the kind of real-life incident built for the “stranger than fiction” onscreen treatment, and although things have changed for the best in a number of ways since King laid a lot of “real athletes” talk to its quick and sudden rest, there’s still enough to be taken away from that incident that it’s probably well worth revisiting. Battle of the Sexes will hit theaters just in time to please crowds and maybe generate some awards-season buzz on September 22nd.