Battle of the Sexes

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The two things I wondered about before sitting to write this review was…could I be the only critic that refrains from using a single tennis pun; and, if Billie Jean King is cheating on her husband with her hairdresser…how in the world did she end up with such a horrible hairdo?

Much like Titanic, this is a movie you go into knowing the outcome (unless you’re under the age of 40 and had never heard about this event). To the younger folks, it might not seem like that big of a deal. Heck, we just had an MMA fighter (Conor McGregor) get into the ring with a boxer (Floyd Mayweather). We’ve seen lots of bizarre sport exhibitions over the years, but in 1973, this “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match became the biggest story in sports that year, and perhaps the decade. For years it was the most viewed sporting event ever.

King was the top female tennis player, and Bobby Riggs was a former tennis champ who was in his mid-50s, and always looking for a way to make a buck. Sometimes that involved card games, gambling, and bizarre tennis bets. One of those matches had him playing while holding the leash of two dogs (and got him a Rolls Royce).

Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), working on a script from Simon Beaufoy (Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) make a serviceable, if slightly flawed, biopic.

Emma Stone does a fine job as King, although playing that stoic tennis great probably wasn’t difficult. It was the performance of Steve Carell as Riggs that most impressed me. That’s because he’s played so many goofy characters, I thought that would be a distraction. When he played the billionaire wrestling coach John du Pont in Foxcatcher, it was just…weird. Yet the buffoon behavior fit Riggs personality perfectly.

Riggs is having problems with his wife (Elizabeth Shue, who it was nice to see again). His gambling addiction was the funniest on screen since Richard Dreyfuss in Let it Ride. It’s threatening his marriage, and his constant taunts at the top women tennis players isn’t endearing him to her either.

King seems happily married, but she’s attracted to a woman she meets (Andrea Riseborough). This was at a time when public figures didn’t come out of the closet. Their relationship had a nice humanity to it, although she abruptly drops out of the story for awhile.

King wasn’t just fighting this battle, but for more pay for the female tennis players. I found it interesting that she never said the women players should get equal pay. She just found it odd that men got eight times more for competing in the same tournament when the women were selling the same number of tickets. Hard to see how she’s wrong, especially when many feel that women’s tennis is more entertaining to watch.

I liked the fact that the movie showed me things I wasn’t familiar with. One of those involved King creating tournaments on her own to compete with the ones she felt weren’t treating the women fair financially.

I invited a female college tennis player to the screening, her dad is a tennis pro. She had some problems with how the tennis was played. Her mom had a bit of a problem with the lesbian relationship being so much a part of the movie (but mostly because she was there with her other teenage daughter). I had more a problem with the fact that this film has the usual sports movie and biopic cliches. I felt a lot of the time that I was watching A League of Their Own with tennis racquets instead of baseball bats. The movie also didn’t make the viewer get too invested in the characters. Although that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel inspiring. I had some of the same feelings I had watching the African-American women of NASA struggling for success in Hidden Figures.

The movie also did a good job recreating the ‘70s. I saw a Ford Pinto station wagon, which brought back memories of those horrible cars my parents had. I heard Elton John, George Harrison, and Tommy James (although I think they should’ve played Joan Jett’s version of Crimson & Clover).

This gets 3 ½ stars out of 5.