Running Time: 121 Minutes
Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming and Elisabeth Shue
(Movie House Cinemas Screening)
The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.
Battle of the Sexes tells the true story of a 1973 exhibition match between the then top women’s tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a self-styled ‘male chauvinist pig’.
Much like the match itself, Battle of the Sexes attempts to balance the obviously comedic and light-hearted aspects of the match, with the meatier topics of gender equality in sport and King’s struggle to conceal her same-sex relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).
Within the opening few scenes, the plot gets running at a fast pace. Billie Jean and her manager Gladys(Sarah Silverman) found the Women’s Tennis Association in protest at the disparity in prize money offered to male and female winners by the US Lawn Tennis Association. Nine players are recruited and embark on the ‘Virginia Slims Tour’. (Virginia Slims cigarettes traded at that time under ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ and branded themselves as the cigarette of women’s lib).
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris construct the film along the standard sports movie format, building up to the famous match, but they also devote a lot of screen time to exploring the characters’ relationships with one another.
There’s plenty of visual fun to be had too. Similar to American Hustle, this is a film which relishes in the glamorous side of the 70s. At one point you can even hear the clothes of King and her manager moving as they walk, conjuring up thoughts of polyester and static electricity.
The film boasts a great supporting cast, and we get to know plenty of characters during the build-up to the climactic match.
Emma Stone delivers a fantastic performance, but due to the film’s fast pace, her relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn seems somewhat rushed. Their relationship is established within one scene. Which moves the action along nicely, but leaves the relationship lacking some believability.
Steve Carrell is a perfect fit for the clownish Riggs and delivers some of the film’s funniest moments. But sequences designed to bring humanity and pathos to his character never really pay off. He is not the true ‘chauvinist pig’ that he claims to be, but rather uses the language of misogyny as a sales tactic, giving his character much more likability.
However, It is the film’s secondary characters that bring out the complexities of the film, allowing it to explore heavier themes. Billie Jean’s husband Larry, when introduced, looks like a living Ken-doll, but his character develops interesting over the films’ run. He recognizes Billie Jean’s struggle with her own sexuality, but plays neither a macho aggressor to this, nor is he a naive doormat.
Margaret Court, the first woman to play Riggs, is presented in opposition to Billie Jean. She is a woman who loves her husband and enjoys her traditional female role, although she inhabits the top of the macho sports world. It is the left to Riggs himself to point out that Margaret is the only woman on the ladies’ tour who has a child, and the added pressure this puts her under.
Billie Jean and Margaret highlight the choice that women are sometimes forced to make within a male arena – fight against being branded unnaturally masculine and highlight their traditional feminity, or adhere to the tomboy stereotype. This dualism is reflected when Billie Jean struggles to protect her marriage and her lucrative tour sponsorship while risking these to build a new relationship with Marilyn.
Bobby Riggs’ wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Schue) appears at first to be a trophy wife, with a California tan and perfect blowout, but as the film progresses we see her full character emerge, with a modern approach to gender relations. In a way, she is a mirror to Larry, a partner to someone in the public eye, who recognizes their faults and supports them as an individual.
Although it’s sold as a comedy-drama, and you do get plenty of both, the films’ changes in tone can jar somewhat. It’s not entertaining, but there is so much to be explored here, and I wish that more of the two hours runtime could have been devoted to exploring the more serious aspects.
There are some beautifully poignant moments, and some emotionally charged scenes from Emma Stone, but these are undercut by rapid switches into light comedy that doesn’t ring true and seems to belong to a different film – such as the Women’s Tennis Tour’s two fashion designer’s popping out from behind a rail of clothing.
Vibrant and Relevant
Tennis is an obvious choice of sport to base a film around. There’s clear dramatic potential in seeing two individuals facing each other down across a net, and the sport is full of rivalries that have captured the public’s imagination over the years. Of course, women have enjoyed a much higher profile in tennis than in many other sports. The climactic match scenes in Battle of the Sexes do justice to the sport and are filmed in a familiar way – reflective of how a real match would be televised.
Looking at the sports film genre, there are few and far between that focus on a female lead. You might count A League of Their Own (1992), Bend it like Beckham (2002), and Whip It (2009) as the few commercial successes – which means we will have to wait until approximately 2025 for the next female sports blockbuster. However, this is sadly no real surprise given the lack of attention paid to women’s and girl’s sports in wider media and culture. And while Billie Jean may have triumphed over Riggs in 1973, Wimbledon only relented to equal prize money for men and women’s singles champions in 2007.
Margaret Court’s controversial comments to press last year that ‘tennis is full of lesbians’ highlight that ‘women in sport’ do not always have a singular viewpoint. This film’s strength lies in its focus on a multiplicity of female, male, straight and LGBT approaches to women in sport. Had it focused solely on Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs, much of this richness would have been lost.
The film is a perfect example of how a great cast of supporting characters can show the complexities of being a woman in a male-dominated field. We see not just a ‘battle of the sexes’ but a match and a personal journey between two distinct individuals, with a particularly well-rounded and believable female lead.
Overall, Battle of the Sexes is a consistently entertaining, if somewhat light, watch. And with a 12A rating, I hope that a lot of younger girls get a chance to see it.