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'Battle of the Sexes': Raucous entertainment with soul and substance

Bobby Riggs never had a chance. And that's what made the spectacle so delicious.

Everyone with a smattering of knowledge about tennis knew that Riggs -- a 55-year-old country club tennis hustler and avowed "sexist" clown -- had no business being on the same tennis court with a supremely gifted female athlete and champion at the peak of physical condition.

Billie Jean King was in the prime of her career in 1973. Predictably, she ran his ragged, aging behind all over the court for three straight sets. For her, it was just another day at the office. For him, King vs. Riggs was an exhibition of everything -- EVERYTHING -- he had set out to disprove i.e. that the women's game was just as entertaining and powerful as the men's. All of Riggs' famous dinks and drop shots were no match for her. She could do anything he could do and do it faster and more often and cover more of the court doing it.

The anomaly of Riggs' exploitative pseudo-crusade certainly wasn't King's predictable victory. The weird anomaly was, in fact, Margaret Court, in a preview match with Riggs, somehow contriving to lose to him. (Perhaps it's best not to look too carefully there.)

The match was watched by 90 million people all over the globe. I was one of them. And so was a very good female tennis player to whom I happened to be married, who had -- as so many women did -- an emotional stake in everything King was doing for the cause of "equal pay for equal work."

This is a hugely entertaining movie in every way. Even those of us who thought we were up on all the whys and wherefores and issues can't help but be riveted by the spectacle, the Riggs buffoonery, the comedy and, yes, even the tennis which is reproduced with conviction, no small pride and believability.

Forget punctilious accuracy. King is still very much with us. So is her ex-husband Larry. King is as authentic as sports legends get. And her integrity has, to my knowledge, never been seriously questioned. If there was anything false or grotesquely distorted here about her story, you can bet your racquet and balls she'd never have stood for it.

She's certainly the heroine of her own story but she's no paragon of virtue. That, interestingly, is saved for her ex-husband Larry. She's the one who led the era's female athletes (1973) against the male tennis powers-that-be so they could make their own money, thank you very much.

It's there that this movie about a spectacle in The Astrodome (no less) is right up to date when the issue was "equal pay for equal work." You watch this great American heroine played beautifully by Emma Stone as she fights the male titans of tennis -- notably ex-player Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman) -- over the wildly unequal size of tournament prizes for male and female players.

The men had already "monetized" their sport to the max. (The first tennis racquet I ever used was a "Jack Kramer" racquet. There were no racquets named for women.) Women, at best, were tolerated.

King and the Virginia Slims tour of women's tennis changed all that. As the movie would have it, she also, at the exact same time, discovered her own true sexuality with the woman who had been her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough).

The saint onscreen is her husband Larry, played by Austin Stowell, the most tolerant, compassionate and diplomatic cuckold in the history of marital infidelity, as the movie tells the tale. Billie Jean comes off as heedless, confused and selfish. Larry comes off as the overlooked guardian of women's tennis' soul. As you watch, remember that she is still alive to have the tale told her way.

Steve Carell is delightful as Riggs, the gambling addict also addicted to over-the-top promotion and hustling -- Sure, I'll hold two dogs on a leash with one hand and beat you with the other -- and clownishly maintaining male superiority in everything and anything. He couldn't possibly have believed his own nonsense, which is where the fun was.

It's not just an irresistible entertainment by the two directors who gave us "Little Miss Sunshine" and written by the writer who gave us "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Full Monty." It's a movie with social and emotional substance.

It misses only one thing: King once said that she kept in touch with Riggs for the rest of his life. (He died at 77 in 1995.) In his physical decline, he didn't want her to visit so she frequently called, she said. The last phone conversation was a day before his death. According to King in a televised interview, she told him she loved him.

And why on earth wouldn't she? He was a buffoon but it was the contrast to his buffooning that showed us, in perfect relief, how large and great a sports figure she truly was. And don't for a second think that Bobby Riggs didn't know it.


"Battle of the Sexes"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman and Bill Pullman in the tale of the "tennis match of the century" in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, some sex and partial nudity.

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