REVIEWS Court short in battle
Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman
EVEN 44 years later, it seems incomprehensible the planet lost all of its marbles over a single tennis match.
The bizarre back story to this unprecedented sporting oddity is chronicled in Battle of the Sexes, a mildly engrossing, pleasantly staged light drama from the makers of the 2006 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine.
It all went down in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome, before a sellout crowd and a global TV audience of 90 million.
The best female player in the world, 29-year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), took on a 55-year-old retired male pro who hadn’t won a title since the 1940s.
Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a notorious hustler who dreamed up the exhibition match to prove the overall inferiority of women’s tennis.
Riggs had already straightsetted Aussie champ Margaret Court to oblivion in an earlier, lower-profile encounter.
Now there was a winnertakes-all prize of $100,000 on the line, and King was prepared to risk her own reputation to restore some faith in her ailing sport.
The media took the bait over the impending showdown, and soon the public were also hooked on the antics of Riggs, a shameless hypester who described himself as “putting the show in chauvinism.”
Quite rightly, however, Battle of the Sexes senses that this story should really be all about King, who in the run-up to the big game was engulfed by multiple professional and personal crises.
After consistently challenging US tennis supremo Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the galling pay inequalities rife in tennis at the time — males were being paid a staggering eight times more than their female counterparts — King and her longtime manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) created a breakaway women’s comp that later became the WTA circuit we have today.
Just as significantly, King was compelled to suppress her desire for a same-sex relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) due to the harm it would do, not only to her pristine public image (King was married to a leading tennis promoter), but also to the perception of women’s tennis as a whole.
This hidden aspect of her life puts King on an ethical collision course with her bitter rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who as we now know has a scorched-earth policy when it comes to homosexuality.
A subtle and restrained performance from Stone lends a sharpened edge to the magnitude of King’s troubles that the movie’s smooth and ambivalent scripting cannot.
As for Carell’s depiction of Riggs, the opportunities to locate the real man inside the crowd-queasing caricature are few and far between.
Though his character fits the bill when it comes to consistently providing light relief in Battle of the Sexes, Carell is of little use to the movie when it comes time to address the weightier issues raised by the Riggs-King rumble.
Then again, the movie is stretching credibility when it comes to establishing the lasting significance of the freakish contest that ends this saga.
It was only months ago that John McEnroe barely raised a ripple when he stated his belief that if Serena Williams played on the men’s circuit, this trailblazing superstar of the women’s game wouldn’t trouble the top 700 in the rankings.
So 44 years later, some things have never changed.
RIVALRY: Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) in a scene from Battle of the Sexes.