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Movie review: 'Battle of the Sexes' is a relevant spin on a 1970s tennis match

By: Ann Hornaday The Washington Post
October 5, 2017 Updated: October 5, 2017 at 4:10 am
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Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in "Battle of the Sexes." MUST CREDIT: Melinda Sue Gordon, Fox Searchlight Pictures

Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman; directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; 121 minutes; PG-13 for some sexual material and partial nudity.

At a time when Venus and Serena Williams reign supreme, it's difficult to visualize a time when the fight for gender equity in tennis was front-page news. But Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring that era to life with verve and humor in "Battle of the Sexes," a warm, earnestly entertaining film that revisits a pivotal 1973 match between a 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion named Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old tennis star Billie Jean King.

The showdown was comeuppance in the form of performative kitsch, with the competitors arriving in the midst of Vegas-like fanfare and gaudy retinues (leggy ladies for Riggs, bare-chested men for King). For weeks, Riggs, a notorious hustler, had been partying, pulling off stunts and playing the media instead of practicing. King, the bespectacled, intensely focused workhorse, had been working out, honing the precision shots that would prove lethal to her opponent's shockingly lethargic game. She beat him in straight sets, winning the $100,000 prize money and striking an epochal blow for women's rights that made her an instant feminist icon.

"Battle of the Sexes" looks beneath the ballyhoo and horsing around to provide context on the heightened stakes that informed Riggs and King's confrontation. Portrayed in an uncannily spot-on impression by Steve Carell, Riggs comes across as a compulsive gambler eager to reclaim the spotlight and save his marriage. For her part, King - played in a less physically convincing but quietly sympathetic turn by Emma Stone - wasn't explicitly political at all. She was simply interested in getting equal pay on the tennis circuit.

When the big night finally arrives, the actual tennis is a relative letdown. The filmmakers don't address long-held rumors that Riggs threw the game to pay off gambling debts. But what's most astonishing and memorable about the climactic sequence is the filmmakers' use of actual footage of ABC's Howard Cosell delivering a steady stream of patronizing remarks about King's abilities and attractiveness. Riggs, however, is depicted less as a genuine sexist than as a bumbling ally, his outrageousness a matter of showmanship rather than animus.

Therein lies the touching subtext of "Battle of the Sexes." It gives audiences a glimpse of where we've been, how far we've come and, soberingly, how far we've yet to go.

Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post

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