Every so often an exceptionally capable woman has to prove her worth by competing against a clown. That’s one of the durable truisms of “Battle of the Sexes,” a glib, enjoyable fictionalization of the 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. She was 29 and one of the top female tennis players in the world. He was 55 and had been a world champion before she was born. She was a feminist symbol and the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in a single year; he was a self-avowed male chauvinist pig who liked to gamble big. It was a man vs. woman match made for maximum public-relations gimmickry but also a deadly serious referendum on equality on and off the court.
So it was personal and it was political, which “Battle of the Sexes” gets. It was also entertainment, which is where the movie really excels. Nice and easy, it sets the players and early 1970s scene, with Billie Jean (Emma Stone) already making history and Bobby (Steve Carell) largely sidelined. She’s making waves as a player and as a champion of women’s rights, including equal pay, and earning plaudits from the likes of President Nixon. Bobby seems to be living off his indulgent wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue), a frozen smiler right out of Stepford, and spending time on idle in a fancy office. Mostly, Billie Jean is winning while Bobby is keeping boredom at bay.
The directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton make these early scenes pop, cramming characters and information into Billie Jean and Bobby’s separate realities. Billie Jean’s is livelier, more engaging, partly because there’s more at stake and because she’s surrounded by chummy, pleasurably prickly women like Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and Gladys Heldman (a tangy Sarah Silverman), the founder of Tennis World magazine. Together with seven other top female players, these three form a feminist revolt called the Virginia Slims tour, a women’s pro circuit that sets out to combat the gross inequalities that defined professional (open) tennis since its advent in 1968.
As the sunny, sporty feminists stake their rightful claim — holding press conferences, drumming up support, winning and winning some more — a rather dark, clubbier male world comes into view. A gambler, Bobby watches Billie Jean on TV but hangs with masters of the universe, male cigar chompers and scotch swirlers who think nothing of betting away a Rolls-Royce. It looks like a lethal bore, as does Bobby’s home, where he plays with his young son under a conspicuously large and looming portrait of his wife. By the time Bobby is challenging Billie Jean to play it almost seems as if he were willing himself into the arms — or at least company — of this other woman.
It takes a while for them to meet on the court, partly because Billie Jean initially turns Bobby down. So instead, he takes on Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), the Australian champion who becomes the movie’s female heavy. (The real Ms. Court has played that role off screen for her views on same-sex marriage and homosexuality, which she’s branded “a lust for the flesh.”) In a well-publicized faceoff soon called the Mother’s Day Massacre, Bobby defeats Margaret, a loss that Billie Jean feels she needs to correct. It’s game on, though with complications, including Billie Jean’s revelatory attraction to another woman, a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
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