In 1970, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was informed by her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, perfection) that Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) was only offering women a $1,500 prize at his Pacific Southwest Tennis Tournament while the men would receive $10,000. Women's #1 player marched right in, challenging him with the fact that there was no difference in ticket sales, but he would not back down, believing men were simply better players. Billie Jean led a walkout, created the Women's Tennis Association and, with Heldman, the Virginia Slims tour, but it was another male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who would help her prove Kramer wrong in "Battle of the Sexes."
It is difficult to remember just how instilled sexism was in our culture not that long ago. As Virginia Slims trumpeted 'You've come a long way, baby,' women were still being objectified and treated with condescension. Part of what makes Billie Jean's story - and this is definitely more her story than Riggs's - so intriguing is that she was a woman whose husband Larry King (Austin Stowell, "Colossal") was an exception to the rule, her staunch supporter at a time when she was questioning her own sexual identity. Stone, transformed by a brunette shag and wire-rimmed glasses, gives us a Billie Jean determined to prove women as capable as men despite personal emotional chaos and impending scandal. (The actress may not resemble King, but we forget we're watching Stone, at least until cinematographer Linus Sandgren 'borrows' a "Birdman" shot.)
While Billie Jean was helping to lead the women's liberation movement, Bobby Riggs was grappling for relevance, the retired former world champ stuck at a desk job, his own marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) taking hits from his gambling addiction. The loud mouthed Riggs astutely saw an opportunity for media celebrity, but when he proposed his idea to Billie Jean, she wanted no part of a media circus. Flustered by her flirtation-turned-affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, "Birdman"), Billie Jean was already having trouble maintaining focus for her upcoming battle with Australian player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee, "The Loved Ones"), an anti-gay crusader. She lost, her game off, and Riggs made the offer to Court. When Court was beaten by Riggs, King made it her mission to prove women's equality on the court.
With a screenplay by "Slumdog Millionaire's" Simon Beaufoy, "Little Miss Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris keep a number of balls in the air, juggling actual tennis play, the hype leading up to a game that would be watched by 90 million, and the personal lives of their protagonists. Thrown out of his house, Riggs bunks with his elder son Larry (Lewis Pullman, son of costar Bill), favoring Benny Hill style hijinx for the media over training, gulping down copious pills from his own Dr. Feelgood, Rheo Blair (Fred Armisen). Carell, sporting a dental appliance that makes his resemblance to Riggs uncanny, conjures Riggs as a sad clown. King finds an ally in gay tennis costumer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who recognizes her struggle, but she's torn between her devotion to Larry, whom she truly loves, and the woman who brings her joy. Stowell makes Larry the film's most touching figure, quickly figuring out just what's going on, but instead of confronting his wife, giving her space to think (he tells Marilyn 'I'm just the husband. You're just a phase,' recognizing tennis as his wife's first love).
The "Battle of the Sexes" is kicked off with Riggs handing King a giant Sugar Daddy, she gifting him with a pig, but the match itself is no laughing matter, Kramer's face falling as King dominates the tiring Riggs. Co-commentating with Howard Cossell, Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales, TV's 'The Grinder') has the last laugh after having been introduced as if she were a child. Women across the nation cheer at the outcome, which changed the game of tennis forever. "Battle of the Sexes" is yet another reminder of the incredible sacrifices made in a fight for equality that persists almost fifty years later.
Robin did not see this film.
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