Running Time: 121 Minutes
Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming and Elisabeth Shue
(London Film Festival Screening)
The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.
Emma Stone serves up a fantastic central performance as the great Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directorial duo behind Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, the film documents the events that led up to the 1973 match between King and Bobby Riggs, one of the most watched events in television history and a match that became dubbed ‘the battle of the sexes’.
It’s an immensely watchable film, even if you aren’t a huge tennis fan as it explores the topics of gender equality with all the indie filmmaking sensibilities you’d expect from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, but that doesn’t mean it treats the subject matter lightly. There are two solid performances from both leads, particularly Stone who’s perfectly cast as King. I’ll admit I have a soft spot for Emma Stone, she’s maybe not quite up there at my Julianne Moore levels of admiration, but she’s an actress who rarely puts a foot wrong onscreen and that’s definitely the case here.
A Complicated Woman
Her portrayal of King is that of deeply complicated woman, she’s someone who doesn’t claim to be a feminist, yet she’s unafraid to stand up to her male counterparts and ask for a greater sense of equality at a time when the prize money for men’s tennis was eight times that of the women’s game. But for all her apparent confidence she’s a married woman who’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, terrified that coming out publicly might ruin her career.
The film dabbles with King’s sexuality as it shows the relationship between King and her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), but it never really feels confident in exploring the issue, it’s much more confident when it sticks to the tennis. It’s a shame because there’s real chemistry between Stone and Riseborough, the two have an instant attraction when they first meet and their flirtatious friendship quickly develops into something much more. They’ve some genuinely sweet moments together, like a scene where Billie tells Marilyn a story from her childhood that drove her to become the tennis player she is.
Sadly those scenes are undercut with moments of pure titillation as the two actresses get down and dirty, whilst I might be a red-blooded male I’m a firm believer that a sex scene in a movie rarely moves the plot along, well apart from The Crying Game, so I just didn’t think it was necessary here. Billie’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell) is also a bit of a wet blanket throughout much of the film, he’s not really given much to do other than support his wife on her tennis tour, even as he becomes aware of her affair.
A Comedic Imbecile
As for Bobby Riggs, Steve Carrell makes him almost too likable, largely playing the role for laughs as he paints the former tennis pro as a comedic imbecile who’s only really in it for the money. The self-proclaimed ‘male chauvinist pig’, whose lavish lifestyle is ironically bankrolled by his long-suffering wife might claim that he wants to turn women’s tennis into a sideshow, but for all his talk his real motivation seems to be purely financial.
There are worse male chauvinists on display within this film than Biggs, like Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the executive of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP Tour). He repeatedly butts heads with King over her pursuit of better prize money for women’s tennis as it’s his belief that they are genetically inferior and less exciting to watch than men, so unsurprisingly he’s disgusted they’d have the audacity to consider themselves equal.
Credit must also go to both Sarah Silverman and Alan Cummings, both actors give strong supporting performances in their respective roles. Silverman is great as Gladys Heldman, the founder of World Tennis magazine, who helps Billie setup her breakaway women’s tennis tour and Cummings plays Ted Tinling, King’s fashion designer and close personal friend.
There’s a lovely scene between Stone and Cummings near the film’s finale that has stayed with me since watching the film. The two just embrace, there’s little if any dialogue, but it’s filled with poignancy as a homosexual man and a lesbian woman hope for the day when they can just be accepted for who they really are.
The Constraints of a Two-Hour Runtime
There are a lot of issues that Battle of the Sexes could’ve dealt with, but its narrative is clearly limited by the constraints of a two-hour runtime. Unlike say Netflix’s TV series GLOW with deals with the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling during the 1980s, the film doesn’t really have the time to address every issue it raises fully. There are lots of topics it could’ve dealt with in more detail, but the film keeps it’s focus firmly on the events that led to the match between King and Riggs taking place in the first place and I think it’s a better movie for it.
Take Goodbye Christopher Robin, for example, a film that tried to explore far too much throughout its runtime and ended up being a tad underwhelming, Battle of the Sexes doesn’t do that and I think it’s a better film for it.
I really enjoyed Battle of the Sexes: it’s a fun film that highlights issues of equality that remain relevant today just as they were back in the 1970s. Much of the film’s charm comes from the two excellent performances from both its leads, particularly Emma Stone.