FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES (2017)
Directors: Jonathan Dayton / Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen
Putting the show back into chauvinism.
Back in 1973, one of the biggest sporting events of all time happened – an exhibition tennis game. The game, however, was the infamous “battle of the sexes” between top female player Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs. Washed up and unable to shake his gambling addiction, Riggs challenges King to a $100,000 match and after enough coercion from various angles, King agrees to the game and history was made.
Off the court, King (Stone), married to tennis promoter Larry King (Stowell), falls in love with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough) and in order to protect the fledgling Women’s Tennis Association (which she founded), King desperately bids to keep her same-sex relationship a secret. Riggs, on the other hand, is a gambling addict struggling to hold his marriage together and craves the limelight of years gone by. Riding on the growing wave of female equality, Riggs goes the other way and challenges the female players to matches on the pretence that men are the superior gender in all aspects. As the charade and bravado get louder, and with the gurning old guard – led by television announcer Jack Kramer (Pullman) – out in full force, King eventually accepts the offer, not for the money but for the chance to usher in a real change.
Battle of the Sexes deals with a sporting moment that exposed deeper issues in society – issues that depressingly still infect the world today – and the lengths it took to shine the spotlight on female equality, and later LGBTQ issues. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t take the preachy route and instead lets the characters tell the story, and in most cases, background chatter provides the telling attitudes. The titular duel takes a backseat for the majority of the movie in favour of King’s personal and professional struggles. Indeed, Battle of the Sexes focuses heavily on King as opposed to Riggs, who is more pantomime villain than anything else. In comparison, Riggs was never the deep sexist he boasted to be – he seemingly wanted the money and fame that came with the circus - instead, it was the suits and head honchos who believed in the charade and allowed their small minds (and possibly small penises) to rage.
Almost to be expected, Stone and Carell are fabulous at the lead pairing. Stone handles King’s awkwardness and turmoil with appealing aplomb and bears an uncanny resemblance thanks to some crafty behind-the-scenes magic. It’s another strong performance from the Academy Award winner. Carell revels in the hubris and comedy that Riggs was able to provide and also allows for a sympathetic light to be shone on the ‘villain’ of the piece. Andrea Riseborough deserves credit for an engaging role as King’s love interest and Pullman is suitably smarmy as dinosaur Jack Kramer.
There’s a vibrancy and colour to proceedings that seemingly only the 1970’s could provide and the soundtrack pulses with cuts from Elton John, Tommy James and the Shondells and George Harrison. The era is faithfully recreated in everything from haircuts to tennis outfits to fashion and beyond.
Overall, the narrative is well paced and edited. The ending should be fairly obvious even to those who aren’t aware of the final result and the tennis scenes are well-choreographed also. King’s affair and subsequent internal ramifications are handled with the required sensibility and are never overdone for dramatic effect or tub-thumping.
Battle of the Sexes is a strong, but light, movie that boasts fine performances and the chance to remind the world that whilst things were bad back then, things haven’t advanced all that much. Timely message or not, the movie is entertaining without being stunning, but is certainly compelling enough to warrant attention.
December 23rd 2017