“Battle of the Sexes” tells the story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs — and two other entangled stories. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
An enjoyably lighthearted crowd-pleaser with a serious message at its core, “Battle of the Sexes” tells an entangled trio of stories. In 1973, tennis champion Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs — a former champion and fast-talking huckster nearly twice her age — in a wildly hyped, nationally televised match at the Houston Astrodome. That same year (with less hype), King, frustrated by inequities in prize money between male and female tennis pros, founded the Women’s Tennis Association, still the governing body of women’s tennis today. And, in King’s personal life, it was a time when she began a closeted lesbian relationship, one that she was terrified would be made public and destroy not just her marriage and career, but women’s tennis.
The married directing team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton has a record of making smart, funny films with heart (“Little Miss Sunshine” and one of my favorite films of recent years, the quirky rom-com “Ruby Sparks”) and it continues here. Working from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Full Monty”), they make two hours fly by. The pace is swift, and the ’70s setting is rich: the throbbing soundtrack, the retro click of a telephone dial, the bright colors and pageantry of the match. And the casting is often delicious: Sarah Silverman as chain-smoking tennis impresario Gladys Heldman; Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ dissatisfied wife who — in a quiet mirror of King’s marriage — holds the pursestrings; Alan Cumming as the voluminously bescarfed dress designer Ted Tinling, who gently reminds King that “someday, we will be free to be who we are, and love who we love.”
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Battle of the Sexes,’ with Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue. Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy. 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity. Several theaters.
Steve Carell, as Riggs, has a great scene at a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting — “You’re all here,” he says gleefully, “because you’re terrible gamblers” — and he finds hints of loneliness behind this perpetual showman’s bravado. The movie, though, is far more interested in King, and Emma Stone portrays her with an endearing blend of toughness and wonderment.
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When King meets Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), the quiet hairdresser with whom she falls in love, the movie goes soft and slo-mo and Stone movingly plays King’s bewilderment — she’s dazzled, thrilled, hesitant. As an athlete, however, Stone’s King is all focus; watching Riggs on television, her eyes narrowing, she knows what she has to do. “We’re both sideshows. Tennis is her first love,” King’s husband Larry tells Marilyn, and he’s right. Off the court, she’s a 29-year-old woman finding herself; on it, she’s a confident powerhouse. “I need to think,” King announces, late in the film. And off she goes, late at night, to hit tennis balls.