Battle of the Sexes

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"Excuse me, I believe 'worst haircut' also goes to me."

The nice thing about history is that if we’ve learned from it, and if enough time has passed, we can also laugh at it. Look how foolish we were then! “Battle of the Sexes,” a highly entertaining account of the 1973 tennis match between self-described male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and top female player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), begins with a litany of comically sexist excuses for why men are paid more than women, spouted by U.S. Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (a Mitt Romney-looking Bill Pullman). “Men are more exciting to watch,” he says. (But men’s and women’s events sell the same number of tickets.) “That’s just biology.” It’s a hair’s breadth from the “Anchorman” news team’s freak-out over a woman joining the staff (“Their periods attract bears!”) — except it really happened, more or less.

Writer Simon Beaufoy, whose previous true-story screenplays include “127 Hours” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” paints Bobby Riggs as a past-his-prime gambler, hustler, and clown, but Carell plays him fondly, a likable cad with some degree of self-awareness (“I’m gonna put the ‘show’ back in ‘chauvinism,'” he says). This is Billie Jean’s story, though — she has a character arc; Bobby doesn’t. Besides breaking off from the sexist USLTA to start a new women’s tour, Billie Jean is discovering that she may be a lesbian. She is aided in this by the tour’s hairstylist, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), whose first question for her — “What do you want?” — is tonsorial but has a wider application. All of this will be sad news for Billie Jean’s nice husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), and it will have a dramatic impact on the remainder of her life.

But first, tennis! Husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Ruby Sparks”) make the most of the giddy excitement of the women’s tour, with Sarah Silverman as World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman coming along to help Billie Jean with logistics and sponsors. (Welcome aboard, Virginia Slims!) Other players include Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales, who’s seamlessly integrated with footage of the real Howard Cosell) and Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who takes Bobby Riggs’ bait when Billie Jean initially declines, and serves as a more serious, matronly counterpart to the up-and-coming Mrs. King. Without dwelling on the gameplay itself, Dayton and Faris convey the fun sisterhood of the tour, interspersing it with Bobby’s humorous efforts to arrange his Battle of the Sexes match. Once that is in motion, there’s ample comedy in the pre-match publicity, in Bobby and Billie Jean needling each other at press conferences, and in the smug self-assurance of Jack Kramer and his fellow tennis establishment squares.

The big match is shown in some detail, building momentum as a cavalier Bobby realizes his opponent is more formidable than he expected. If you’re not aware of the outcome (and I guess there’s no reason anyone under 40 who’s not a tennis fan would be), the directors create impressive dramatic tension — turns out this is a legitimate sports movie, too.

Carell is good as Bobby Riggs, imbuing him with enough soul to prevent his being nothing but a villain, helped by Elisabeth Shue as his loving but weary wife. But the movie belongs to Emma Stone, who inhabits the character of Billie Jean King without attempting an impersonation of her. Through her, we feel the thrill of Billie Jean and the other women’s feminist advances, as well as the personal exhilaration of self-discovery. There remains much work to be done when it comes to gender equality, obviously, but we’ve made enough progress since 1973 that we can sit back and laugh at what was then a frustrating, demoralizing situation, and to cheer the heroines who fought against it.

P.S. Having seen the film, I am convinced that Michael Jackson was telling the truth about Billie Jean not being his lover. Let us put this issue to rest.

B+ (2 hrs., 1 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a little sexuality.)