Susan Granger’s review of “Battle of the Sexes” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
This sports drama serves up the story behind the famed 1973 exhibition tennis match between 29 year-old Billie Jean King and 55 year-old Bobby Riggs, who bragged he could beat any woman player in the world.
As reigning Wimbledon champion two years running, King (Emma Stone) was in her prime, while brash, gambling-addicted Riggs (Steve Carell) was Wimbledon’s champion back in 1939.
So with great fanfare on September 30, King was carried, like Cleopatra on a chaise, into the Houston Astrodome by bare-chested guys, while Riggs, wearing a yellow Sugar Daddy jacket, arrived by rickshaw. At the net, King handed Riggs a squirming piglet, confirming his male chauvinist status.
Squaring off for the $100,000 prize, it was a milestone for the women’s liberation movement. At that time under the aegis of condescending Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), women on the tournament circuit earned far less than men. So King was determined to get respect and equal pay for female players.
Meanwhile, off the court, Billie Jean was experiencing a different dilemma: her sexual awakening. Although married to supportive Larry King (Austin Stowell), she was attracted to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). While facing a palimony suit in 1981, King became the first famous athlete to come out as a lesbian.
Fresh from her Oscar-winning “La La Land,” Emma Stone added 15 pounds of muscle to her slim frame, nailing King’s competitive style, aided by her athletic stunt-double, NCAA’s Kaitlyn Christian. Supported by Steve Carell, who captures Riggs’ desperation, they’re a winning match.
Working from Simon Beaufoy’s subtle screenplay, husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) cleverly capture the tenor of the time, utilizing actual footage of Howard Cosell’s insidiously sexist commentary and offering glimpses of fashion designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) and ‘World Tennis’ magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).
FYI: According to Forbes, Emma Stone is now the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Battle of the Sexes” aces an empowering 8, focusing on the social change that swept the country during the last quarter of the 20th century.