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Movie Review: ‘Battle of the Sexes’ Is a Mixed Victory

The story of the legendary tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King is practically a fable when you think about it. The veteran talent of the cocky Riggs faces off against the struggling and determined King. He lounges with vitamins while she struggles with practice. He’s a sexist pig and she’s a woman committed to equal rights for women. Their tale is so ripe with melodrama and historical checkmarks in the road to gender equality that it’d be too easy to make a movie out of. Yet they did so anyway with all cliches you’d expect in Battle of the Sexes.

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Emma Stone and Steve Carell play real life sports stars Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

The film does hold a relevance, even if it’s delivered with the bluntness of an atomic bomb. Taking place in the early 1970s, the snobby tennis league isn’t all that accepting of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) as its top female champion. The organization, headed by the smarmy owner played by Bill Pullman, only pays her a fraction of the prize money, reasoning that women are not as big of a draw as the men.

Furious, she leaves in a huff with her companion Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and starts her own female tennis organization. They have a rocky start, but thanks to Billie’s pluck and Gladys’ cutthroat negotiations, they become a legitimate sports organization. Billie is better able to keep her league of female tennis players in line than maintain her marriage, which goes south when her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) has Billie questioning her sexuality.

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Emma Stone wears the crown.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is struggling to better himself after winning the tennis championship. He’s a masterful player and has a genuine charm when either playing on the court or playing with his younger son, but he hasn’t gotten over his gambling addiction. Why would he? He’s always been so good at it, to the point of winning tennis matches for new cars. He attends a support group for gambling and calls out everyone attending as just being bad at it, offering to give them an edge to make better bets. He even convinces his therapist to take some pointers from him on card playing. In the male-dominated landscape of the 1970s, men like Bobby are not seen as having problems, despite the obvious issues he has that need treatment if he hopes to maintain his struggling marriage with his concerned wife (Elisabeth Shue).

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