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A Telling Absence Of Balls: A Review Of 'Battle Of The Sexes'

Opening exclusively at Ayala Cinemas this week is an inspired retelling of the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and huckster Bobby Riggs. Entitled 'The Battle of the Sexes', one only needs to know that it is directed by the same team that brought us 'Little Miss Sunshine' to surmise that this film treatment will be more than a mere one-dimensional sports-related movie; and will be driven more by strong portrayals of the main characters involved. While treating us to a snapshot of a particular juncture in history, it reminds us of how the contest served as a microcosm for the then-nascent Women's Liberation movement. 

Set in 1973, while it became the most-watched televised sports event of all time, you have to credit directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Simon Beaufoy's screenplay, and the portrayals of Emma Stone and Steve Carell, for turning this film into potent social commentary that has as much relevance today as it did in the 1970's. More than just highlighting her fight/crusade for equal prize money for women tennis players, the film also sensitively deals with Billie Jean's awakening recognition of her own sexuality. As it takes on this LGBT theme, the film wisely keeps us empathizing with both protagonists. Rather than turning this into a hero vs. villain scenario, the film exposes the blemishes and wrinkles, and the saving graces of both the Billie Jean and Bobby characters.
The film opens with an outraged Billie Jean (Emma Stone), accompanied by Gladys Heldman (the wonderful Sarah Silverman), confronting Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over a tournament he is mounting, where the women earn one-eighth the prize money of the men despite equal ticket sales. The women threaten to start their own tour, which becomes a forgone conclusion as Kramer expels all the women who join said tour from the Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). There's in-hindsight humor and irony as the Women's Tennis Association's (WTA) first full sponsor is Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand. We then shift gears to meet Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former tennis champion, who at 55, can't stop his gambling addiction and is looking for a way to recapture his faded glory days. He hits upon the idea of challenging the top women players to squash all this talk of equal pay, and how the women deserve it. With razor-sharp marketing savvy, Riggs plays up his Male Chauvinist Pig persona to turn his challenge into a media circus.

Throughout the film we are treated to wry observations and commentary about the "bigger picture", going beyond what was to transpire on the court. There's a sympathetic portrayal of Billie's husband Larry (Austin Stowell), who accepts and steps aside as he recognizes what is going on between his wife and her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). And there's the revelation that Bobby, despite all the bluster and macho attitude, is in fact supported by his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). The insecurities, the doubts surrounding the Ladies Tour is touched on, as is the constant reminding of how this was 1973, and how the revelation that the #1 Ladies player was a lesbian would have created havoc for the Tour's survival. 

I loved Steve Carell's take on Bobby; but if I have to gush, it would be for Emma Stone. In my mind, even more than her Academy Award winning 'La La Land', she delivers the goods here; taking on the physical habits and idiosyncrasies of Billie Jean King. As a history lesson, this film shines, demonstrating how you didn't need 'balls', to play tennis, and win in life!