The list of things that Battle of the Sexes isn’t really about is one longer than an Isner/Mahut game. For one, it’s not really about tennis. It’s also, in a funny way, not really about the battle or even the sexes. From directing duo Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, here is a film about lost souls on the margins of society and how they deal with the rough road that life has thrown their way. Fundamentally, this is a film about equality for all sectors of society and a reminder of just how far from over the struggle really is.
At the start of 1973, seven-time tennis Grand Slam winner Billie Jean King was at the top of her game. That same year, former top ranking champ – and prolific hustler – Bobby Riggs was at the rock bottom of his. When it came to the court, however, Jack Kramer (Executive Director of the newly founded ATP) respected only one of them. No, it wasn’t the women’s world number one. Parallels to the present day are distressingly pertinent amid an otherwise delightfully produced confection of fun, not just in the political world but that of tennis too. Whilst a commentator in the film remarks that King is a haircut and contact lenses away from a ‘Hollywood screen-test’, it was not so long ago that John Inverdale suggested that French Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli had been told to work harder in life because she was never going to be ‘a looker’. The so-called ‘Battle of the Sexes’ may have pushed a few chauvinist noses askew but it didn’t win the war.
Fresh from her Oscar winning twirl in La La Land, Emma Stone continues her form here, serving up one of two startling good central performances in the film as Bille Jean; the other being Steve Carell’s dialled up Bobby Riggs. With equal panache, both capture the mannerisms of their subjects with quite remarkable credibility, unearthing too a pleasing and personal depth to the public facade. Riggs could so easily have mired in one-note territory that it is a real testament to Carrell that, almost implausibly, you might find yourself feeling sorry for ‘the self-styled chauvinist pig’ come the end. Praise for Stone is due, of course, but in channelling reality, the real star of the film is King herself. Which is absolutely how it should be.
The film opens with Billie Jean leading a walk-out on the United States Tennis Association over their refusal to even out the gender pay divide ($12,000 for the men, $1500 for the ‘little ladies’), founding the Women’s Tennis Association with Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and the ‘Houston nine’. Starting their own tour, the group prove ever popular with spectators, much to the chagrin of misogynistic club-house ‘gents’. Riggs isn’t one of these – he’s a old-timer gone to waste, pushed to the peripheries and frittering his more successful wife’s money away on gambles – but is nonetheless irked. He’s also opportunistic and desperate for publicity so when someone passingly remarks that he’d pay to see Riggs take on King, a brilliantly timed twitch of the eye by Carell says all you need to know.
It is, however, only when Bobby jovially dispatches King’s own rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in a game, declaring himself ‘the women’s number one’, that she is finally persuaded to take him on in a game that means so much more than the $100,000 prize fund.
Thrumming with a Made in Dagenham vibe – beehives and all – Battle of the Sexes sits happily among the David vs Goliath vogue for upbeat portrayals of equality struggles. The treat in this case is to find Simon Beaufoy’s rye script delving deeper and exploring Billie Jean’s gradual awakening to her homosexuality. Andrea Riseborough is quietly brilliant (as ever) playing Marilyn, King’s hairdresser/lover, in beautifully shot, romantic sequences that remind of Tom Ford’s work in A Single Man. A word too for the excellent cinematography of La La Land’s award-winning Linus Sandgren; one long shot of an inner-city tennis court, dusky blue under apartments with window lights like glittering stars, is picture-perfect.
It is true that the so-called ‘battle’ itself suffers somewhat from the same ‘tennis-on-screen’ fatigue of similar outings as 2004’s Wimbledon but the monumentalism of its outcome is as jubilant and poignant as could be hoped for. Sugarcoated, sure, but well earned.
With some cozy pseudo-wisdom from Alan Cumming at the very end, it’s safe to say that crowds are game, set and matched to be pleased.