In Battle of the Sexes, a film that feels as important as it is engaging in its look back at the famous Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match of 44 years ago, Emma Stone defeats Steve Carell in straight sets.
That's not to say Carell doesn't nail his part as Riggs, the unrepentant hustler and showman who at age 55 defeated the No. 1-ranked woman in the world, Margaret Court, before setting up the prime-time showdown with the Wimbledon-winning King a few months later. Carell looks the part, shows enough savvy on the tennis court to pull it off and -- much to the delight of fans of The Office's Michael Scott -- essentially gets to revisit his popular TV role, since Riggs would say anything for shock value if it might earn him a buck.
But the match, of course, went to King in three straight sets, so if victors get to write the history, they also reap the close-ups and the more pivotal side of the story. Stone is on a great roll in Hollywood, considering her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land last year and her terrific performance here. Like Carell, she's good enough with a racket to deliver basic strokes (her dance steps from La La Land helped her learn footwork on the court), and filmmakers successfully made both actors appear to be covering the court like tennis champs in scenes where doubles were used.
It's hard to convey in 2017 how an exhibition tennis match could have ever gained so much attention. But it has been reported that 90 million people around the world watched as the two battled in Houston's Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973.
The match aired during prime time on ABC with Howard Cosell handling the commentary, and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) wisely use a fair amount of his footage and sound. While Cosell was the journalist who fought for Muhammad Ali's right to object to the Vietnam War, he wasn't quite as enlightened on the women's front, saying at one point that King was "playing very tough, walking more like a male than a female.''
There were numerous celebrities courtside, including NFL great Jim Brown. During a radio interview with Brown three years ago, I asked him about that night.
King vs. Riggs, Sept. 20, 1973, Houston's Astrodome
"It was a great event, a great historical event," Brown said. "She beat him to death. I don't know if he threw the match or not, but I enjoyed it tremendously."
Given Riggs' gambling nature, rumors he had been paid to lose floated around for years, but nothing came close to being confirmed and the film wisely avoids the subject.
Some of Stone's finest moments come when she stands up to tennis legend Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who offers women one-eighth of the prize money that men are receiving. That compels King to lead the boycott that produced the women's tennis tour.
When Riggs easily handled Court in a match that the Australian great apparently didn't take seriously, King felt she had to step up and accept the invitation from Riggs she already had turned down.
While facing enormous pressure to win the match (King has said she thought it would be the death of women's tennis if she, like Court, lost to a 55-year-old man), Stone's character also is wrestling with her own sexuality, falling for a hairdresser and failing to hide the affair from her husband. In real life, King was married and had a long-running affair with her secretary, but a little looseness with the truth here is important at the film's conclusion.
As Stone celebrates the victory over Riggs and accepts congratulations all around, she is unable to offer a hug to the woman she loves. America may have been ready to take some baby steps toward gender equality (a battle that obviously remains unfinished), but it was nowhere close to accepting the homosexuality of its star athletes, men or women.
The list of great tennis films is a short one. At long last, Woody Allen's Match Point and Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train have some competition. Stone and Carell charge the net and light it up.
Battle of the Sexes (A-)
PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity). 121 minutes. In wide release.