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A Competitor And A Clown Walk Onto A Tennis Court In 'Battle Of The Sexes'

Emma Stone stars as the famous professional tennis player and gender equality activist, Billie Jean King, in <em>Battle of the Sexes.</em>
20th Century Fox
Emma Stone stars as the famous professional tennis player and gender equality activist, Billie Jean King, in <em>Battle of the Sexes.</em>

Pop Culture Happy Hour discussedBattle Of The Sexes on this week's episode. To hear the episode, click the play button.

In the story of Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs, told again in Battle Of The Sexes, it's often forgotten that she didn't particularly want to do it. In fact, she didn't do it until Riggs had badly beaten Margaret Court, who was one of the greatest players in women's tennis at the time.

Court, who wasn't invested in feminism the way King was, treated it as an exhibition for money. But when she lost badly to a 55-year-old man, she inadvertently gave ammunition to people who believed — as John McEnroe still does, for instance — that even the best women's tennis players couldn't survive anywhere near the top of professional men's tennis. McEnroe doesn't want to say so, but in that interview, it's fairly clear that he believes he could probably beat Serena Williams, even at his age. It's a nearly exact repeat of what Bobby Riggs believed — even though he lost. McEnroe wasn't convinced by what King did. He still believes exactlywhat Riggs believed: The best women players are inherently inferior at tennis to the point where even old men can beat them.

The film focuses on King's activism for prize money parity in professional tennis, meaning sexism was not, for her, only about pride. Bobby Riggs may have been a sideshow, but he — and the people he riled up with his antics — had the potential to slow down women's tennis in its push for equality.

King's ambivalence and reluctance, and her understanding that the position she found herself in as an advocate had the capacity to paint her into a corner, are the best parts of the new film, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who directed Little Miss Sunshine. Played by Emma Stone, King risks her career to band together with other women's tennis players to form the Virginia Slims circuit, only to be forced into combat with Riggs, played by Steve Carell as a hustler who insults women in public — not because he hates them, but because it's his shtick.

Would that this were no longer a viable path.

Stone's scenes with Sarah Silverman, as the publisher who initially helps organize the rebelling women, are funny and stylishly done. In its own way, the '70s fashion that costume designer Mary Zophres assembled for this film is as essential as the stuff she put together for La La Land. It's the iconography of traditional Hollywood in one case and the iconography of the laid-back, California-flavored 1970s, big lapels and all.

King, of course, was doubly vulnerable because she was married to a man but knew by this time that she was gay, and she feared what having that become public would do to her personally, to her husband, and to women's tennis — for which she'd become a symbol. The film tells what seems to be a fictionalized version of King's relationship with Marilyn Barnett, with whom she tentatively gets involved while on tour. Stone's nervous engagement with Barnett when they first meet, played in soft close-ups, is nicely contrasted with her fearless approach to tennis and the tennis establishment (personified by an officious Bill Pullman as the boss of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, which kicks the women out of its tournaments after they start their own).

Stone's focus in playing King is on her bright, competitive, aggressive personality and her frustration that while Court losing to Riggs was taken as a judgment on the relative merits of men's and women's tennis, her beating Riggs would not be. It would only perhaps nullify what had already happened.

She knows she's stuck. She knows that this self-promoter has successfully rounded up a bunch of men who secretly want to hear his rhetoric, and she will have to, literally, meet him on his own terms. She must play his game, or she will be taken to have lost to him.

If she refuses to play: She loses. If she plays and loses: She loses. And if she plays and wins: It's kind of a draw. That's what it's like to battle people who don't care what happens when you do.

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