Dir. Valerie Faris and Johnathan Dayton
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverman, Natalie Morales, Alan Cumming, Elizabeth Shue
I’m not a huge tennis fan, and 1973 was a good twenty years before I was born, so I went into Battle Of The Sexes with next to no expectations. I had seen one trailer, which made the film seem like a generic sports movie with a period setting. Re-telling the story of the famous Battle Of The Sexes, where women’s number one Billie Jean King faced off against 55 year old, ex-champion Bobby Riggs. I went in with an open mind, but was concerned with the lack of buzz surrounding the film. It should be ideal awards bait, with Emma Stone in the lead role, playing a real life character, with strong issues at the heart of the plot. I went in expecting a glossy by the numbers sports biopic, but ended up getting a lot more.
The story revolves around Billie Jean King, played by an almost unrecognisable Emma Stone. The film may pitch itself as a two hander with co-lead Steve Carell, but this is Emma Stone’s film. We’re introduced to Billie as the number one women’s tennis player, who is battling for equality in not just her sport, but for women everywhere. When she finds out that Bill Pullman’s sexist Jack Kramer is putting on a tournament where men are being paid 8 times that of women, she forms her own all women’s tour with her manager played by Sarah Silverman. On tour she meets hairdresser Marilyn, and starts to struggle with her own sexuality. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, played fantastically by Steve Carell, is struggling with his gambling addiction, which is causing his marriage to collapse. To compensate, the 55 year old puts on The Battle Of The Sexes, where he pits himself against female tennis players. At first Billie Jean wants nothing to do with it, realising that a loss would set her movement back years, but soon realises she’s on a collision course which she can’t get off.
One of the great strengths of Battle Of The Sexes is that most of the tennis is played off-screen, with the only real tennis being seen in the final act. The film is much more interested in the characters, not just their achievements. The majority of the film is a love story played out between Billie Jean and Marilyn; when they first meet the cinematography is reminiscent of Todd Haynes’s Carol, with lots of soft colours, and out of focus shapes, helping to portray the sensuality felt from the moment they meet. In lesser hands this could make Billie out to be unlikeable, as she is both being unfaithful to her husband, and not being fair with her feelings towards Marilyn, but the directors here really make you see how complicated her position was. Billie had to take it one battle at a time, and her fight for gender equality would have been hindered if the public knew about her sexuality. Emma Stones’s scenes with Riseborough sizzle with sensuality and sexuality, and her scenes with her husband are equally as heartbreaking.
Steve Carell is great as Bobby Riggs, using all his comedic charm, and pairing it with his serious acting chops. Bobby could easily be the villain of the piece, with all his proclamations of being a male chauvinist pig, and how women belong in the kitchen. It’s clear though that these aren’t Riggs’s actual views, and that he’s just a great hustler and showman. In one scene Billie Jean tells Bill Pullman’s character that she’s not worried about Riggs as he’s just a clown, but she is worried about Pullman’s Jack Kramer as she thinks he really believes that women are inferior. It’s not hard to draw parallels between Carell’s Bobby Riggs and a certain US President. The way they talk in hyperbole, and promote themselves. If Riggs is Trump, then Kramer could easily be seen as Mike Pence.
The focus on character really pays off in the third act, where in another sports film it’s good guy versus bad guy, with only their pride at stake. Here the stakes feel huge, and that’s because they are. The final tennis match is a match for female equality with the weight resting firmly on Billie Jeans’s shoulders, and Emma Stone makes us feel that weight. I have to wonder if this film would have been better received if Clinton had won the election. It’s an uplifting film, but that uplift comes with the sadness that the world we live in today isn’t too different from the 70’s. Women are still fighting for equality. There’s a scene near the end which really hits home. Billie Jean sitting in her changing room after the match, crying. It’s the realisation that yes, she succeeded, and yes, she made it through, but the sad reality is that she shouldn’t have had to. She should never have been forced into that position.
The film is quietly affecting throughout, and you can’t help but feel moved by the end. The performances are great, and the issues are dealt with sensitively without losing their impact. I still think that it will be looked over during awards season, and that’s because of the direction. It lacks the verve and style that would really make it stand out. I really enjoyed the movie, and got a lot more out of it than I would have expected, but it was just missing that little bit of magic to make it truly special.