Battle of the Sexes

Steve Carell, left, Eric Christian Olsen and Fred Armisen star in "Battle of the Sexes."

Fox Searchlight Pictures

For those who remember and those who do not, “Battle of the Sexes” will be a revelation.

It is one of the finest films of the year. And Bettendorf High School graduate Eric Christian Olsen is among the outstanding ensemble in a movie that’s sure to gain notice when awards season rolls around.

The titular battle happened in September 1973, when Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) competed against Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in a $100,000 (that was a king’s ransom in those days) winner-take-all tournament. The match drew millions of television viewers because it represented so much more than a sports event.

Inequity between men and women in most careers was a given back then. But King refused to be treated differently than male players. As the story begins, King and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the publisher of “World Tennis” magazine, discuss the inequity in the women’s and men’s prize money with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the tournament chairman of the Pacific Southwest Championships. “Men have families to support,” Kramer says at one time.

Eventually King and Heldman find a sponsor for a women’s tennis tour. Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand whose slogan was “You’ve come a long way, baby.” And thus the Women’s Tennis Association tour began.

In the meantime, Riggs, a loudmouth showman, sees an opportunity: What if he and King battled it out — “women’s libber” versus “male chauvinist pig,” to use phrases from that era? Riggs beats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) the top-ranked women’s tennis champion. Certainly, he boasts, he can beat King.

A movie like this probably could not have been made during the time it is set. It depicts several tender moments in the intimate relationship King develops with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, “Noturnal Animals”), a hair stylist with whom she becomes romantically involved.

This is a tremendously talented troupe. Stone is fantastic as King, a woman who becomes an icon for equality while she simultaneously is challenged by her search for her own identity. Carell plays Riggs for all he’s worth as a tireless opportunist who doesn’t mind being a buffoon as long as he’s in the spotlight.

In the meantime, you’ll see Olsen in a sequence at the beginning of the film when he is seated near Carell. He plays Riggs’ friend and coach tennis pro Lornie Kuhle. In fact, Olsen is a welcome onscreen presence in many scenes, and provides several reaction shots during the big match

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have created a delightful movie that’s lighthearted in its delivery but serious in its themes.

The audience in which I was a viewer applauded at the end. You very well might, too.

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