by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
Wimbledon just ended. The Olympics start July 23 and the U.S Open August 30. Time for a tennis film.
It was when Billie met Bobby.
At center court.
With everyone watching.
It was dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes," which serves as the title of this bubbly period comedy about a 1973 event staged, televised, and viewed by 90 million Americans — one of the most-watched sporting events of all time.
That was when 55-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs, his triumphant tennis career fading in the rear-view mirror, challenged 29-year-old Billie Jean King, still a champ at the top of her game, to a high-profile happening in Houston's Astrodome.
Any woman beating any man? Unthinkable.
In "Battle of the Sexes," Emma Stone's King and Steve Carell's Riggs — two technically solid, smartly judged star turns and enjoyably watchable impersonations — perform like an efficient mixed-doubles tandem, serving and volleying effortlessly as the take us back to a time when, as Riggs puts it, he could put the "show back in chauvinism."
Married directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris manage to demonstrate, in the yin-and-yang screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, that you could say that we've come a long way, baby, in terms of gender equality; but that, let's face it, you could also say that we've barely budged.
As they say in tennis: game, set, match.
At the time that Riggs issued the on-court challenge to King that would eventuate into a media circus, each was married and struggling with off-court issues, primarily his gambling compulsions and her emerging sexual identity.
But it was the sexual revolution and the women's movement that served as context and background for what seemed at the time just an extravagant publicity stunt that would come to take on considerable symbolic value.
As for the film itself, it could stand to be, like one's tennis game, a lot more hard-hitting, although the obvious sugarcoating is easy to forgive in a work that is not inspiring, but is always pleasantly watchable.
The directors employ a light, careful touch — the cinematic equivalent of a safe second serve in tennis — and allow their accessible enterprise to register as a as a friendly reminder that the equal-rights battle is still being fought.
The generally winning "Battle of the Sexes" pretty much avoids unforced errors and foot faults. Moreover, calling it a crowd-pleaser is anything but a backhand compliment.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.