RE­VIEWS Court short in bat­tle

Sunday Tasmanian - - News -

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.

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