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Battle of the Sexes serves with distinction

Rating: ***

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
STARS Emma Stone, Steve Carell

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
  • Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

In 1973, tennis stars Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs squared off in a televised match that was known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” That historic event – and the hoopla and hysteria that surrounded it – forms the basis for the same-named Battle of the Sexes, a highly engaging film that frequently keeps a light touch even as it tackles weighty subjects.

At the time, Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) was 29 and doing everything in her power to push for women’s rights, particularly when it came to the acceptance of female tennis players. Naturally, the MRAs of the day fought against this, and they found a figure head of sorts in 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who claimed that he could beat any female player in the world. Realizing it was just a publicity stunt, King declined to participate, but once Riggs made short work of top-ranked Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King had no choice but to accept the challenge.

The most surprising aspect regarding Battle of the Sexes is the relative sympathy it displays toward Riggs. As King herself notes, he’s just a clown (indeed, the two later became good friends), and his actions are depicted not so much as the result of some deep-seated chauvinism but rather because he realizes that, as an aged and over-the-hill player, this is his best opportunity to get back into the spotlight. Carell does a fine job of conveying both Riggs’ outward obnoxiousness and inner angst, while directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and Oscar-winning scripter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) are content to allow Bill Pullman to provide the villainy as sexist tennis head Jack Kramer.

As Billie Jean King, Stone delivers a remarkable performance, an amazing about-face from her Oscar-winning turn in last year’s La La Land. She nails all aspects of the role, from her professional rivalry with Riggs to her personal relationships with husband Larry King (Austin Stowell) and Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), the latter responsible for allowing King to finally acknowledge – and act upon – her long-dormant lesbianism.

It’s fitting that one of King’s sponsors was Virginia Slims, known for the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The veracity of that statement is up for debate in 2017, when reptilian Republican politicians continue to clamp down on women’s rights and a repellent chauvinist pig (and, lest we forget, accused rapist) occupies the White House. Fortunately, movies like Battle of the Sexes exist to continue to show the way toward a better tomorrow.

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