Battle of the Sexes Review
Despite being a dramatisation of a sporting event that took place over forty years ago, Battle of the Sexes arrives in cinemas with a newfound cultural relevance. Billie Jean King’s monumental triumph against Bobby Riggs, seen by numerous commentators at the time as a rare sporting win against the boorish, chauvinistic patriarchy, has a renewed inspirational zeal in an era where the most qualified woman in the USA was beaten by the least qualified man imaginable to the Presidency. When it went in to production in mid 2016, Battle of the Sexes was likely intended by the filmmakers as a suddenly relevant parable to Hilary Clinton seizing the White House - instead, it’s now arrived as a hopeful reminder than unabashed chauvinism can be very publicly defeated, a message that can be easy to forget in dispiriting times.
In this adaptation, Emma Stone stars as Billie Jean King, who after a series of successful performances in the early seventies walks away from the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) to start her own female tennis league, due to the indignity of women only being offered an eighth of what the male players receive, when female tennis matches deliver equal ticket sales. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is equally struggling with a gambling addiction and cockily boasts that, despite his advancing age, he can still beat any woman. Turned down by the rising star Billie Jean King at first, a victory over Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) sees King decide to rise up to the challenge, so female tennis doesn’t get fully written off as an inferior iteration of the sport. Practicing for the big match proves to be stressful, when juggling a detonating relationship with her husband, and a love affair with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).
One of the best decisions in Battle of the Sexes is to characterise Bobby Riggs not as a chauvinist, but somebody who will happily benefit from the chauvinism inherent in society. He’s guilty of being arrogant, yet largely only plays up any detrimental views of women for the cameras in order to build media interest in the game - in fact, when it comes to male characters in the film, his pantomime misogyny registers as some of the film’s least sexist behaviour. The biggest offender is ATP founding member, and former world number one, Jack Kramer - played by Bill Pullman in a delightfully scenery chewing performance. If Bobby Riggs amplifies sexism to make a knowingly cartoonish public persona, then Kramer is the sort to downplay his outlandish remarks and casually belittle women through what contemporary audiences could charitably refer to as “alternative facts”. Needless to say, Pullman is enjoying every second of revelling in this character’s unashamed awfulness.
But this is really Billie Jean King’s story - and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are surprisingly more comfortable when dealing with King than with the broader comic strokes associated with Riggs’ storyline. With a background in quirky character comedies, the directorial duo try to divorce the comedy from the King side of the story as much as possible, in order to create an intimate sexual awakening story that just happens to be at the centre of a more formulaic sports drama. The blossoming relationship, and realisation of sexual desires, between Billie Jean King and Marilyn is played with a believable social awkwardness by Stone and Riseborough that subtly manages to elevate from awe-stricken small talk in the dressing room, to guilty fumbling around in the hotel room, all while the two characters remain uncertain (and a tiny bit guilty) about their own identities.
With the focus on chauvinism being squarely defeated, there isn’t enough time dedicated to exploring the LGBT connotations of this relationship - instead relegating it to being a character motivating plot detail as the film goes along, to focus on the wider ranging feminist themes. If the film were just following King, instead of both sides of the tennis match, it would be easier to go into this relationship in more than just broad strokes; instead, we get two great performances who portray infatuation so effortlessly, they help elevate an important element in the story that Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay spends less time with than it deserves. It’s the intimate moments where these two performers are truly in their element.
Overall, Battle of the Sexes is a fun biopic, albeit one that will likely leave you wishing you’d watched a documentary on the subject for more specific insights into these interesting characters. There’s no shortage of great performances within this ensemble but the film will surely prove to be less memorable than the significant sporting event it depicts.