BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Decades before Mayweather-McGregor, there was this titled “sporting event as spectacle” pitting former tennis champion/serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) against then court queen/activist Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). As is customary for most sports flicks, much of the drama happens outside the field of play among the two competitors and their inner circle. With the kind of bluster that would make a professional wrestler envious, Carell (FOXCATCHER) accurately portrays Riggs as a shameless self-promoter and unrepentant gambler who embraces a male chauvinist persona while he lives off the family fortune and good graces of his put upon wife (Elisabeth Shue). But the heart of the movie lies with King and her conflicted feelings about being a standard bearer for female athletes even as she grapples with her own sexuality. Stone (LA LA LAND) is excellent with a performance that’s powerfully expressive even when she’s not uttering a word. Some of the relationships, like the one between King and her husband (Austin Stowell) or the one between Riggs and his adult son (Lewis Pullman), aren’t developed to their full potential and feels like their storylines were left on the editing room floor. The main event is somewhat anti-climactic as was the real match itself (See CLOSING CREDITS.) but Simon Beaufoy’s (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) screenplay deftly combines moments of comedy with human dramas that are the meat of the narrative. Even though the outcome is known, SEXES is consistently entertaining and accurately portrays the circus style atmosphere surrounding the 1973 tennis match that drew ninety million television viewers and advanced the cause of women’s athletics from both an entertainment and financial standpoint. I’m not ready to classify this movie as an ace with its Lifetime made-for-television feel, but it’s worth a look with strong performances plus its subtle nod toward the contemporary state of gender equality in and out of sports. CRITIC’S GRADE: B
CLOSING CREDITS: My memory of King vs. Riggs is that it occurred on a Thursday night when I was working in the concession stand at a football game to help raise money for the junior class at Sharyland High. There was a television tuned to the match in our work area but I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to it since it didn’t really matter to me who won. I had a hunch that King would win pretty easily since Riggs was in his fifties which seemed positively ancient to me at the time. Now, not so much. I recall, too, thinking that most of the guys staunchly rooting for Riggs were real dopes. There was always a part of me that wondered if the whole affair wasn’t an elaborate “hustle” by Riggs to keep himself in the spotlight while profiting by having his “front men” bet heavily against him even as he went about raising the bar of equality for women. Years after their match, I can see the two of them meeting in the proverbial undisclosed location with him shaking her hand and saying, “You see, Billie Jean. I told you. It worked like a charm”.