Putting the show in chau­vin­ism

Bat­tle of the Sexes has im­por­tant things to say about the state of the world to­day, in spite of be­ing set al­most half a cen­tury ago, in 1973


It may be hard for mod­ern cinema­go­ers to be­lieve, but there was once a time in which women were not con­sid­ered the equal of men.

Let me clar­ify in case the sar­casm didn’t come through.

Bat­tle of the Sexes, about the ten­nis match between Bil­lie Jean King and self-de­scribed male chau­vin­ist pig Bobby Riggs, has im­por­tant things to say about the state of the world to­day, in spite of be­ing set al­most half a cen­tury ago, in 1973.

Not that the film is a bor­ing tirade.

In the hands of co-di­rec­tors Jonathan Day­ton and Va­lerie Faris (Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine, Ruby Sparks), this is a funny and en­ter­tain­ing romp, en­livened by ju­di­cious use of mid-cen­tury mu­sic, cars, ar­chi­tec­ture, dé­cor, fash­ion, hair­styles and colour pal­ettes.

To steal a line from Si­mon Beau­foy’s screen­play, it puts the show in chau­vin­ism.

Emma Stone stars as 29-year-old King, although she doesn’t even speak to the 55-year-old Riggs (Steve Carell) un­til a half-hour into the movie.

First, she’s bat­tling for equal­ity as one of the orig­i­nal mem­bers of the all-fe­male Vir­ginia Slims Cir­cuit, founded by pro­moter Gla­dys Held­man af­ter women at Wim­ble­don took home a frac­tion of the prize money awarded to men.

Sarah Sil­ver­man plays Held­man, hav­ing a ball in big hair, big­ger glasses and flared trousers.

King is also fight­ing a much more pri­vate bat­tle, try­ing to fig­ure out her sex­ual pref­er­ence af­ter meet­ing and flirt­ing with Mar­i­lyn Bar­nett (An­drea Rise­bor­ough), a hairdresser in the movie, though in real life, she was King’s sec­re­tary. When she asks the ten­nis star “do you like danc­ing?” it’s clear she has more in mind.

There’s al­most enough go­ing on here with­out the cli­mac­tic ten­nis match, which is beau­ti­fully shot by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Li­nus Sand­gren (La La Land) to em­pha­size the emo­tions and chess-match strat­egy as much as the raw power of the game.

King is al­most backed into the con­test af­ter Riggs hand­ily de­feats top-ranked Mar­garet Court, four months be­fore the ul­ti­mate bat­tle.

Court, played as a paragon of old-fash­ioned val­ues by Jes­sica McNamee, re­mains a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure even to­day — now a pas­tor, she was re­cently barred from her home­town ten­nis club af­ter speak­ing out against a non-bind­ing ref­er­en­dum in Aus­tralia for mar­riage equal­ity for LGBT cou­ples.

But the movie’s en­ergy is di­rected to­ward the big match at the Hous­ton Astrodome, with the me­dia-savvy Riggs do­ing all he can to milk the event for money and fame.

Carell plays the man as a buf­foon but a self-aware one, with a host of pec­ca­dil­los in­clud­ing a gam­bling ad­dic­tion, which he en­gages in with his shrink. (That’s some re­verse psy­chol­ogy!)

Prais­ing Carell’s clown­ish per­for­mance may seem like a back­handed com­pli­ment, but when you’re talk­ing ten­nis, that’s ac­tu­ally a good thing.

Be­sides, in a key mo­ment we hear a com­men­ta­tor note: “The com­edy has gone out of Bobby Riggs.”

Bat­tle of the Sexes may have laughs aplenty, but at its heart is the se­ri­ous is­sue of equal­ity, and the ar­gu­ment is well served. Twit­ter.com/ ChrisKnight­film

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Bat­tle of the Sexes.

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