At 29, Billie Jean King was the top-ranked woman tennis player in the world, making waves on the pro circuit by demanding promoters offer women players the same prize money they offered male players.
Bobby Riggs was a 55-year-old former tennis champ, and shameless self-promoting media hustler. When he challenged her to a duel on the tennis court in 1973, the whole world was literally watching.
It was billed as the "Battle of the Sexes," a symbolic milestone in the then-burgeoning women's movement.
And now their match-up comes to the big screen in this thoughtful and entertaining movie about gender, identity, politics, and celebrity at a pivotal cultural moment in American history, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine).
|The real Bobby and Billie Jean. Guess who had the muscle?|
(The other women players are so excited to get their own tour, they each sign on for one dollar.)
The publicity generated by the tour attracts gadfly Bobby (Steve Carell), who, since his heyday in the late 1940s and '50s, has been living off high-profile exhibition matches — and the inherited income of his wealthy wife.
Billie Jean rejects Bobby's first offer. Long-married to her college sweetheart, she's too busy coping with a her sudden, intense attraction to Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), here portrayed as a hairdresser who comes on tour with the female pros.
|Stone and Carell: match point|
Carell plays Bobby with gusto, in all his gross excess, and yet there's unexpected charm in his brash exuberance, vowing to "put the show back in chauvinism!"
A vintage soundtrack keeps the action bubbling along, and clothes and hairstyles replicate the era perfectly.
But despite the hi-jinks, the subject of gender inequality (let alone embracing one's sexual orientation) remains serious throughout — and as pertinent now as ever.