An exhibition tennis match today pitting a man against a woman might draw a few hundred thousand viewers on ESPN2. But in 1973, a much-hyped showdown between thriving tennis star Billie Jean King, 29, and has-been hustler Bobby Riggs, 55, drew 50 million viewers to a primetime showdown on ABC.

Directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) have taken that match and turned it into Battle of the Sexes.

Their film is a nifty little slice of the ’70s that also raises the flags for feminism and LGBT rights. And despite those weighty issues, it’s a mostly light-hearted movie whose appeal comes largely from its two leads: Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

The always reliable Stone, coming off her Oscar for La La Land, portrays King with confidence and determination. At least on the court. Off the court, the married King is wrestling with her newfound affections for Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), an L.A. hairdresser, and the awakening of her sexuality.

Stone looks like King, walks like King and, thanks to a double and clever editing, plays tennis like King. She wants equal pay for women and is in the midst of forming a new tour, the Women’s Tennis Association, with promoter Gladys Heldman (a sassy Sarah Silverman).

In sharp contrast, there is Riggs. The former tennis great is long past his glory years, but as a chronic gambler is constantly on the lookout for the next scheme or crazy bet, much to the chagrin of his wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue), who pays the bills.

In 1973, with the “Women’s Lib” movement in full throttle, Riggs declares the women’s game far inferior to men’s tennis and claims he could beat any female. He cooks up a challenge in May with then No. 1 ranked Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), whom he dispatches in straight sets. That serves as the springboard to the battle with King four months later, a winner-take-all $100,000 match in Houston’s Astrodome.

As part of the pre-match hype, Riggs becomes a human publicity machine, assuming the role of jerk-in-chief and deriding the talents of all women (“Keep them in the kitchen and bedroom,” he snarls). The press loves it, and the match becomes a referendum on boys vs. girls.

The actual tennis is the least important element of Battle of the Sexes. The film is much more interested in relationships and King’s evolution. Its best moments come off the court, especially when King and company break off to form the WTA, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes no less. (Hey, it was the ’70s!)

Battle of the Sexes also benefits from a strong supporting cast, including Bill Pullman as tennis promoter and anti-feminist Jack Kramer, Natalie Morales as tennis pro Rosie Casals, Fred Armisen as Riggs’ pill-pushing guru, and Alan Cumming as the WTA’s clothing designer Ted Tinling (King’s outfit from the match is in the Smithsonian).

Folks of a certain age will smile (or cringe) when we cut to the night of the big event and its host, sports broadcasting legend Howard Cosell (yes, the real Cosell from archive footage).

Hearing the loquacious one may be the biggest throwback jolt of the whole film. And right on cue, Cosell intones the sexist vibe of the time, by suggesting that if only King would grow her hair and take off her glasses, she could be a Hollywood star.

Dayton and Faris nail the look of the ’70s — from clothes to cars to hairstyles to little pay-TVs in airports. And although some of the chronology is jumbled, much of the film is factually based.

Even the ridiculous really happened: Riggs entered the Astrodome riding a rickshaw pulled by young women. King rode a Cleopatra litter carried by hunky, bare-chested dudes and presented Riggs with a live pig, as in “male chauvinist pig.”

The fact that 50 million American viewers tuned in (and an estimated 40 million more worldwide) is still astounding. For one night, tennis was king.

Clint O’Connor can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.