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‘Battle of the Sexes’ is a barely muted rallying cry for our time

The movie, which centers on the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone, is best when it’s not preaching to the audience.

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Emma Stone and Steve Carell in 'Battle of the Sexes.'

Melinda Sue Gordon/Fox Searchlight Pictures/AP

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The intermittently excellent “Battle of the Sexes,” centering on the notorious tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, takes us back to a time – 1973 – when female tennis stars were regarded as second-class citizens compared with their male counterparts and often earned far less. You could certainly argue that, contrary to this movie’s uplifting, forward-looking messaging, a disparity remains. Still, the rampant inequality and condescension on view here is a startling reminder.

Riggs (Steve Carell) had been a world champion in the 1940s but, in 1973, at age 55, he’s a bored executive with a desk job and all-around goof-off who will wager on just about anything. He attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings and chastises the assemblage, arguing that it’s only the losers who complain about betting. He stages tennis stunt matches where he plays in a dress, in flippers, holding an umbrella – whatever gets a laugh. His heiress wife (Elisabeth Shue) tells him, “You’re like a little kid, you know that?” To which he responds, “Well, you’re good with kids.” 

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King (Emma Stone) is a top player on the Women’s Tennis Association circuit, her only rival being the Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). When Riggs, eyeing a chance to reenter the limelight by proving the superiority of men over women, challenges Court to a match, she accepts and loses badly.

King, in a tiff over pay inequality with unapologetically sexist tennis circuit honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), has already bolted the tennis hierarchy with her fellow females in tow and started up a rival, higher-stakes women’s circuit. Baited by Riggs, and outraged at his errant male piggery, she accepts his offer to play a $100,000 winner-take-all match in the Houston Astrodome. The Super Bowl-like publicity surrounding the event lives up to Riggs’s boast to “put the show back in chauvinism.” The event attracted an estimated 90 million viewers in the United States. 

These shenanigans, which nevertheless carried great symbolic weight, are only one-half of the story that co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy are trying to tell in “Battle of the Sexes.” They want to position King not only as a feminist icon but also as a nascent icon of gay rights. Although married and ostensibly heterosexual – her husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), is also her coach, manager, and trainer – she feels the stirrings of attraction when Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser, comes on to her. Not long after, they become lovers, pairing up clandestinely on the tennis circuit, though not without raising suspicions. Larry, deeply hurt but resolutely loyal, calls his wife’s tryst a “phase.” Billie Jean, aware of the damage that coming out could do not only to her marriage but to her career, spends most of the movie in a state of simmering turmoil. 

Despite her sunny, fresh-faced looks that hark back to an earlier and less complicated Hollywood era, Stone in her portrayals has often exhibited a distraughtness and a steel core beneath all the chipperness. This was true in “La La Land” and much more so here, where she makes King’s conflicts almost kinesthetically apparent in the way she moves – so fluid and powerful on the court, so stiff and angular away from it. The film is set up to champion King as a paragon of civil rights, but Stone, in the complexity of her portrayal, rightly backs away from such hagiography. The psychological stresses that King suffered subsequent to the events portrayed in this movie, which the filmmakers don’t divulge, make sense if you pay attention to what Stone is doing here.

Carell is remarkable not only in the hoopla scenes, in which this showman seems on top of the world, but also in the quieter moments when, facing defeat on the court, the goofiness dissolves and a stricken look crosses his face. He makes you feel for the guy, if not his cause.

By attempting to use the sports world as a lens through which to view the social-
sexual currents of its time, the filmmakers turn “Battle of the Sexes” into a barely muted rallying cry for equality in our own time. When the women players’ dress designer (Alan Cumming) says, “Someday we will be able to be who we are,” the blatancy of his moralizing is a disservice to the film. “Battle of the Sexes” is best not when it is preaching to us but, rather, in those moments when both King and Riggs drop their public faces and reveal the roiling underneath. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.)