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'Battle Of The Sexes' Revisits Billie Jean King's Historic Win Against Bobby Riggs


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Few exhibition games of any sport are remembered 44 years later. But the 1973 tennis match between self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs and women's tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King captivated the nation. It's the subject of the new film "Battle Of The Sexes," starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. In a few minutes, we'll hear an interview I recorded with Billie Jean King in 2013 commemorating the 40th anniversary of that match. But first, a review of the movie "Battle Of The Sexes" from our critic-at-large John Powers. He says it's an entertaining film that also says a lot about how Americans think about social issues.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Early in Andre Agassi's autobiography, he writes that every tennis match is a life in miniature. But, sometimes, it's even grander than that. You could glimpse a whole culture in miniature when the ardent feminist Billie Jean King squared off against the self-described sexist pig Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome in September of 1973. Their match is now the subject of a breezy, new movie, "Battle Of The Sexes," which carries us back to the heyday of both women's lib and shockingly routine sexism.

Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris tease out strands of an epochal pop event that tapped into forces that are still clashing today. On one side, you have King, played by Emma Stone, who's out to liberate women and herself. The top female player at the time, she's at war with the head of the Association of Tennis Professionals, Jack Kramer. That's Bill Pullman, a hard-headed misogynist who believes that men deserve far more prize money, even if women sell the same number of tickets.

In response, King launches a women's tour. As if that weren't radical enough, she also begins discovering her true sexuality, beginning an affair with her hairdresser, played by the always great Andrea Riseborough. In contrast, Steve Carell's Riggs is a 55-year-old Wimbledon champ turned tennis hustler and compulsive gambler, who, tapping into the zeitgeist, comes up with his most brilliant hustle. Insisting that he can beat any woman, he challenges then-number-one Margaret Court, a devout anti-feminist who almost dutifully loses to his dinks and lobs in mortifying fashion.

Puffed up by his newfound fame, this not unlikable scamp goes after bigger game in the outspoken King, an Alpha who accepts in the name of women's advancement. The result is a full-fledged media circus complete with PR stunts, backroom machinations and the abrasive Brooklyn bray of Howard Cosell. Here, King and Riggs drum up excitement with a jaunty press conference.


STEVE CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) Don't get me wrong. I love women in the bedroom and in the kitchen. But these days, they want to be everywhere. They want to be doing everything. Where is it going to end? Pretty soon, us fellows aren't going to be able to go to a ballgame. We're not going to be able to go fishing. We're going to be able to stop and have a drink after work. And that's what this whole women's lib thing is about. And it's got to stop. And Bobby Riggs is the man to stop it. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Custer's last stand. This is a lobber versus a libber.

EMMA STONE: (As Billie Jean King) Keep talking, Bobby. The more nonsense you spout, the worse it's going to be when you lose.


CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) Well, I'm the ladies No. 1. I'm the champ. Why would I lose?

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) Because dinosaurs can't play tennis.

POWERS: As this clip may suggest, the so-called battle of the sexes was, in fact, a textbook pseudo-event, one created to grab media attention and make money. By such standards, it was an astounding success. Forty-four years later, it remains the most watched and talked-about tennis match in history and, surely, the most important.

Though younger listeners may scarcely believe it, if King had lost, it would've damaged the woman's cause for years. Defenders of traditional sex roles would have felt they had vivid proof, watched by millions, that women aren't merely physically smaller and weaker than men but that they also buckle under pressure. Now, it may seem crazy that something like a manufactured tennis match could become a referendum on how we should live. But this is America, folks. "Battle Of The Sexes" serves as a useful reminder of the crazy-huge role that pop culture plays in our national life, where the border between entertainment and real life is more porous than anywhere else.

No other Western country has elected an actor president, let alone a reality TV star. This isn't simply a question of celebrity. You see, pop culture is often the way that mainstream America, especially the mainstream media, deals with social and political issues it prefers not to confront head-on. The argument over gay rights is made indirectly by "Will & Grace," which normalizes gayness. The fight over Black Lives Matter gets deflected into fights about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. And the harsh, winner-take-all nature of today's economy reinforces itself on TV competitions like "Survivor" and, yes, "The Apprentice."

Naturally, such sociopolitical issues are so huge and tricky that pop culture can't really solve them. And so they keep coming back in slightly different forms. "Battle Of The Sexes" is about the showdown between a brash, attention-loving guy who doesn't care all that much whether he wins - it's all good for business - and an earnest feminist opponent weighed down by her sense that she's fighting for a righteous cause. I could almost be describing last year's presidential election - with one big difference, of course - the winner.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.