Yesterday's hype makes great soap in Battle Of The Sexes

By Jim Slotek

(Rating: B+)

The "Battle Of The Sexes” was the 1973 tennis exhibition that, as overhyped spectacle, was the Mayweather/McGregor match of its day. And it’s fleshed out as first-rate soap opera in the movie of the same name starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

It was about nothing, but it was sold to millions as everything – a match that was supposed to decide for all time whether women athletes, nay, women in general, were to be taken seriously outside the kitchen or the bedroom.

Emma Stone with Andrea Riseborough, a lover AND a hairdresser. Not a bad deal.

Emma Stone with Andrea Riseborough, a lover AND a hairdresser. Not a bad deal.

That this was even a question speaks to the times. And Battle Of The Sexes, starring Emma Stone as tennis hall-of-famer Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as the onetime Wimbledon-winning huckster Bobby Riggs, tells the times well.

People who tune their ears these days to “micro-aggression” might well remind themselves that not so long ago, sexism was decidedly macro. The women players were “girls,” offered a mere $1,500 championship money at the U.S. Open (compared to $12,000 for the men).

Read Original Cin's interview with Billie Jean King

And one of the most famous of sportscasters, Howard Cosell, retroactively seems like a creep for such okay-at-the-time actions as telling King she should “try harder” to look pretty, and putting his arm around color commentator Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) during the live broadcast of the match.

All big hair and tight ‘70s dresses (and lobster-bib ties on the men), Battle Of The Sexes evokes the dawn of the ‘70s with elan and a colorful cinematic approach. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton fixate on Emma Stone’s face to where it is all there is on the screen much of the time – the better to hammer home the job they did transforming the comparatively physically slight movie star into a startling facsimile of one of the sports great battlers.

Carell's Riggs is a complicated clown.

Carell's Riggs is a complicated clown.

This is Stone’s movie, narratively and as far as the camera is concerned. Whether the then-married King’s self-discovery as a lesbian dovetailed as neatly in real life with the event at the Houston Astrodome is questionable. But it makes better drama to have her fall in love with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) en route to her date with pop culture history (yes, there will be an awkward encounter with Billie Jean's husband). And Stone creates a perfectly likeable heroine at the centre of a hype-storm.

And, as if one antagonist wasn’t enough, the movie casts Riggs’ first victim, Australian champ Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) as another – an “old-fashioned” type (she still is today) who discovers King’s sexual preference and denounces it as repugnant and sinful.

But it’s Carell’s Bobby Riggs who gets the movie’s heart pumping with his sad clown act and uncontrolled id. When we meet him, he’s a fiftysomething has-been, in a do-nothing office job, with an incipient gambling problem and a burning jealousy over the money these kids (and especially women) were being paid to play his game.

All that mattered was to get himself back in the headlines and score some cash. And if that took completely removing the filter between his brain and his mouth in acting out the role of “chauvinist pig,” he was the man to do it. (More than a few people have suggested that, timing-wise, it might as well be Donald Trump that Billie Jean is playing against in this movie).

By now, it’s no surprise to see Carell dish out an utterly believable performance of a quirky or bizarre individual (think The Big Short or Foxcatcher).

Riggs didn’t earn a lot of sympathy back then, except among the most virulent of fellow misogynists. Carell makes him legitimately sympathetic, a man playing the self-assigned role of jerk as best he can. 

Battle Of The Sexes. Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Opening wide Friday, Sept. 22.