WASHINGTON — In 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King made history by defeating Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome in a televised match viewed by an estimated 90 million people.
Now, two of Hollywood’s most beloved stars recreate the historic event in the new movie “Battle of the Sexes,” written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”).
The film opens with King (Emma Stone) arguing for equal pay for women athletes. When Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) of the Association of Tennis Professionals balks at the idea – arguing that women don’t draw as much revenue — King boycotts the group and starts her own league with the founder of World Tennis magazine, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame tennis vet Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) feeds his gambling addiction by challenging female players to gender-clash matches. When the self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” challenges the feminist King to a “Battle of the Sexes” worth $100,000, King accepts the challenge, viewing it as a pivotal moment to score a victory for women’s rights.
The film is worth seeing for Stone’s performance alone, proving why she’s the defending Oscar champ for Best Actress. Her Billie Jean King is less mimicry than it is pure inhabitation, creating a living, breathing human behind those signature glasses. Here’s a person fighting two battles: a public struggle for women’s rights and a private struggle over her own sexuality.
Her acting chops are best on display in moments where she nervously welcomes flirtations from her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Fittingly, their first lesbian kiss comes bathed in blue light, a meta moment where “La La Land” enters the “Moonlight” (Best Picture harmony at last). It all builds to a poignant scene in the stadium tunnel where her gay uniform designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) tells King, “One day we’ll be able to love who we want.”
Of course, King’s sexual awakening isn’t all sunshine and rainbows; we also see how it affects her spouse, like Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams in “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). King’s devoted husband Larry (Austin Stowell, who recalls Robert Redford) is utterly sympathetic as he takes the high road after learning his wife is not only a lesbian but is also having an affair.
On the other side of the court, Carell is quite hilarious as the gambling addict Riggs, who puts the “racket” in tennis racket, though his web of wagers isn’t nearly as tight. I dare you not to laugh as he hides dinner-table bets from his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and rallies a support group of fellow gamblers. After previously casting him in “Little Miss Sunshine,” it’s easy to see why the directors cast him again, albeit goofier than his previous suicidal uncle.
Oddly enough, Carell is a victim of his own success this time. He’s so damn likable as the antagonist that we feel like we’re watching a lovable moron rather than a sinister villain. The final match would feel more rousing if we despised Riggs. Instead, it feels like it’s all in good fun, which lowers the stakes of the climax. Perhaps this is unfair criticism; after all, Apollo Creed was a very likable opponent, but in Rocky’s case, viewers didn’t know the outcome.
Which brings us to the elephant on the court, an air of unfinished business. After King’s victory, there’s a cutaway to a fan poster reading, “King for President,” no doubt revenge for “bloody” comments during the 2016 election. Sadly, today’s chauvinists will cross their arms and say, “Of course a 29-year-old woman can beat a 55-year-old man! Let’s see Serena Williams beat Roger Federer!” If this is your takeaway, it says more about you than the movie.
Either way, “Battle of the Sexes” is an undeniably charming experience filled with well-acted performances, nostalgic archival footage (from Chris Evert to Howard Cosell) and catchy soundtrack tunes (from George Harrison’s “What Is Life” to Bobbie Gentry’s “Courtyard”). Best of all, the tennis action boasts impressive volleys that’ll make you ask: How did they do that?
As Elton John’s “Rocket Man” hits the soundtrack – like our president’s new nickname for a certain world leader – you’ll wonder how much has actually changed in the realm of macho bluster. Will true equality ever come? Pessimists might echo the lyrics, “I think it’s going to be a long, long time,” but with more movies like this, it could come sooner than you think.
© 2017 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.