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'Battle of the Sexes' is a fine time capsule comedy, and not really about the tennis

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film "Battle of the Sexes." [Fox Searchlight Pictures.]
Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film "Battle of the Sexes." [Fox Searchlight Pictures.]
Published Sep. 25, 2017

In 1973, tennis champion Billie Jean King joined a two-ring circus with hustler Bobby Riggs, billed as a Battle of the Sexes amid the women's liberation movement. Fifty million Americans watched the pop spectacle on TV.

Only a few knew the circus included a third ring.

King's lesbian awakening behind the hoopla is romanticized in Battle of the Sexes, starting with casting Academy Award winner Emma Stone as the tennis great. Stone is terrific, easy to cheer. She's feisty but a bit softer around the edges than King deserves. Another Oscar nomination is certain.

Throw in Steve Carell's uncanny impersonation of Riggs and a stellar supporting cast and Battle of the Sexes has the makings of fine time capsule comedy, an extraordinary sports happening even by today's wired standards.

But it was never really about the tennis. Knowing the King-Riggs outcome or noticing obvious body doubles swinging racquets doesn't diminish the movie's effect. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) play fair with the era's chauvinism yet seriously alter King's sexual awakening.

Her lover's name and occupation are changed after King's palimony issues with the real woman, her former secretary. That affair began two years before the Riggs match, less movie-romantic than love at first clip with a hairdresser nymph (Andrea Riseborough) while preparing for Riggs. It's creative license feeling genuine in the moment, erotic and spontaneous.

By design or not, Simon Beaufoy's screenplay makes King's husband, Peter (Austin Stowell), into a willing cuckold, instantly aware of Billie Jean's infidelity and backing off. (In reality, they stayed married until 1987.) Stowell is given little to do, clearing the way for the movie's manufactured romance and Billie Jean's feud with tennis tour sexist Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) to claim center stage.

That is, whenever Carell's Riggs doesn't want the spotlight. Unlike King's half of the story, Riggs' traits, faults and personal history mostly stick to the facts, some of which are still tough to believe. At 55, Riggs was a former Grand Slam champion, seniors tour winner and compulsive gambler, winning outrageous bets on tennis courts.

Carell captures Riggs' aura of distraction, as if pondering his next angle, and the desperation of someone needing to be famous again. He's cartoonish, but so was Riggs. A montage of the showman's ballyhoo streak, a corporate cash-in before his time, is a highlight of the movie.

There's fine work on the sidelines by Pullman, Sarah Silverman as King's co-founder of a women's pro tour and Alan Cumming as their uniform designer who senses Billie Jean's sexual conflict. Judy Becker's production designs are retro-perfect while Nicholas Britell's musical score is bolstered by classic pop; Crimson and Clover never sounded sexier.

Like real life, the movie loses some steam when the big match rolls around. Nothing on the court could match what led King and Riggs there and the same goes for Dayton and Faris' movie. Up to that point, Battle of the Sexes had me smiling wider more often than usual, winning at least one love.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.