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Arts & Life

'Battle Of The Sexes' Poised To Be A Crowd-Pleaser All Over Again


The movie "Battle Of The Sexes" takes its title from a tennis match that helped define the 1970s - Bobby Riggs versus Billie Jean King. The match drew an enormous audience. More than 90 million people watched it on TV. It was widely seen as a proxy battle over feminism. Now with Steve Carell and Emma Stone trading serves, critic Bob Mondello says "Battle Of The Sexes" is poised to be a crowd pleaser all over again.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It's 1970. Billie Jean King is a top-seeded player and a major draw at tennis tournaments, so she bridles at men being offered eight times the prize money she is.


EMMA STONE: (As Billie Jean King) It says here that you're offering the men's winner $12,000 and 1,500 to the women's.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The men's prize needs to be that high to attract the best players. We're trying to make this the most prestigious tournament in America.

SARAH SILVERMAN: (As Gladys Heldman) And paying the women less than ever makes it more prestigious.

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) What's your argument, Jack?

BILL PULLMAN: (As Jack Kramer) That men are simply more exciting to watch. They're faster.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Fact.

PULLMAN: (As Jack Kramer) And they're stronger.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Fact.

PULLMAN: (As Jack Kramer) And they're more competitive.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Just a fact.

PULLMAN: (As Jack Kramer) It's not your fault. It's just biology.

MONDELLO: Taking that as a challenge, King and eight other women players start their own circuit, getting suspended from the Lawn Tennis Association but quickly catching on with fans, which gives three-time world champion Bobby Riggs an idea. At 55, he is long past his athletic prime. He's also sorely missing the limelight, though. So he wakes up King with a midnight phone call while she's on tour to propose this.


STEVE CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) You and me, Billie Jean - three sets, five sets - your choice.

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) Are you drunk, Bobby?

CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) No, of course not. How about this - male chauvinist pig versus hairy legged feminist - no offense. You're still a feminist, right?

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) No, I'm a tennis player who happens to be a woman.

CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) And I am a tennis player who says that he can beat any woman on the planet. Think of the publicity that we'd get. Think of the money.

MONDELLO: She says no. But when he clobbers another woman's champ, King understands the stakes. Riggs has nothing to lose. Women's tennis has lots to lose. So she accepts his challenge. And as he serves up insults, she returns every volley.


CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) Don't get me wrong. I love women in the bedroom and in the kitchen.


STONE: (As Billie Jean King) Keep talking, Bobby. The more nonsense you spout, the worse it's going to be when you lose.


CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) Well, I'm the ladies' number one. I'm the champ. Why would I lose?

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) 'Cause dinosaurs can't play tennis.

MONDELLO: Advantage King. The film is directed appropriately enough by a mixed-gender pair, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. They're the folks who made the Oscar-nominated "Little Miss Sunshine" a few years back. And they bring a similar interest in the personal to this film. They show Steve Carell's Bobby Riggs chafing at an emasculating marriage, for instance, to make sense of his trying to assert male superiority. And they have Emma Stone dive into the more complicated backstory of Billie Jean King's marriage, devoted to her husband even as a hairdresser upends her life.


STONE: (As Billie Jean King) It doesn't matter. Can you just get it out of my face?

ANDREA RISEBOROUGH: (As Marilyn Barnett) You don't care about how you look, someone as pretty as you?

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) I'm not pretty. I mean I don't - thank you for saying that. What's your name again?

MONDELLO: Keeping this blossoming affair under wraps was essential in the 1970s, a compromise King made in a quest for gender equality. The film is nicely even-handed as it lays out that quest and clever in illustrating it. At one point, sportscaster Howard Cosell, who died some two decades ago, is seen with his arm around one of the film's performers, a bit of digital wizardry that connects that era with ours, as does the script. Back in the 1970s, Billie Jean King knew well that the battle she was engaged in was bigger than she was. And as upbeat and entertaining as it undeniably is, "Battle Of The Sexes" sees that battle as ongoing. I'm Bob Mondello.