Film review by Jason Day of Battle of the Sexes, an account of the real-life battle between tennis champs Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.
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Fed up of the institutional misogyny and unequal financial rewards for women in tennis in the 1970’s, champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) decides to establish a females only tennis association. Washed up former male champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), an incorrigible gambler and hustler, sniffs an opportunity and baits King to a ‘battle of the sexes’ man vs woman match to revitalise his status and finances knowing that, with his greater physical strength, he will beat her. It’s up to King to beat him and start the process of equalising women’s status in a high yield sport.
Review, by Jason Day
Appropriately directed in a gender tandem by a male and female director is this impeccably performed reconstruction of a tennis match that captivated the whole world for a time.
In this big screen treatment, the fireworks of what was recorded on TV coverage make a loud impact.
It’s astonishing to hear some of the real-life sports commentary of the early seventies, when casual sarcastic sexism was the norm and not the headline grabbing exception as it is today. To note a few examples:
- “Women can’t handle the pressure”
- “A rather easy triumph against motherhood and women’s lib”
- “If she let her hair grow and too off her glasses, she’d pass a Hollywood screen test”.
I felt I was watching a Bernard Manning show.
As if to underline this toe-curling anti-women attitude of the period depicted in the film, the sexes are portrayed very differently from the start.
The cocky, confident, urbanely rude males (exemplified by Bill Pullman’s horrid tennis commentator) lounge around in men’s clubs served by mute women, sipping whiskey during the evening and playing tennis whilst holding dogs on a leash during the day.
The female players are always professional and serious (succeeding in a male dominated sport is predicated on this), argue their relative financial worth and, when denied their dues, establish their own females only tennis association.
It’s a man’s world then as now, so have we changed much?
Considering the news stories that abound of the gender pay gap, lack of female representation in certain industries and in the boardroom, women (and the men who support their fight for equality) still have walls and ceilings to punch through.
No side in the ‘gender war’ has ever won out. Even at the end of this film King and Riggs, physically exhausted from their Olympic match-off, are filmed isolated and alone in their separate changing areas, panting for breath, unable to speak after all of the insults slung at each other.
King breaks into uncontrollable tears at the the relief she has won an event that has consumed her very being for so long.
Perhaps she also sobs because of the hellish journey she knows is ahead of her due to her personal life and the media scrutiny she has placed herself under (admitting her lesbianism; splitting from her loyal, supportive husband; coming out to her parents; castigation from the media and public that supports her).
The acting is top drawer (Carell in particular has a hoot as the larger than life Riggs and Stone shows yet again why she is at the forefront of any grouping of top American film actresses) and the movie’s seventies look is bang on.
This is a heart-felt and touching film that, thankfully, doesn’t dwell on King’s lesbianism. My only complaint is that I wasn’t especially grabbed by the movie.
It’s a shame that the straight male characters are either hetero shits, mouthy clowns or wet doormats. There is a wholly negative depiction of them, funnily enough in a film about equality and being treated better by the opposite sex.
The only positive male characters in this pro-women’s right drama are thus feminised – Cumming’s observant gay designer.
There’s something too obvious about the film. Even for those not familiar with the famous real-life tale, the ending is readily apparent from the start.
This is a problem with sport films in general – the hero almost always triumphs and wins – but the film signals all of it’s punches from miles away.
The film’s aims and objectives are megaphoned to us throughout the film until they become deafening. I felt uninterested and slightly bored by the proceedings but, in the final analysis, this is still a story worth watching.
Pullman’s real-life son Lewis appears in the film as Rigg’s eldest son Larry.
Cast & credits
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. 121mins. Cloud Eight Films/Decibel Films/Fox Searchlight Pictures/TSG Entertainment. (12a)
Producers: Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, Robert Graf.
Writer: Simon Beaufoy.
Camera: Linus Sandgren.
Music: Nicholas Britell.
Sets: Judy Becker.
Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Martha MacIsaac, Alan Cumming.