Battle of the Sexes (2017)
He made a bet. She made history.
Loosely based on the infamous 1973 ‘boys vs. girls’ tennis match between three-time Wimbledon winner Bobby Riggs and ladies champion Billie Jean King — which was held at the Houston Astrodome — Battle of the Sexes serves up the perfect modern-day biopic, one that tackles a handful of contemporary issues, think women’s rights (with many, at the time, fighting for equal pay) and sexuality. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband and wife duo behind 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, this impeccably cast square-off is destined to appeal to a wide range of audiences, those old enough to remember the landmark match and those wanting to know a little more.
Written by Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the screenplay avoids the easy route of painting 55-year-old Riggs as a smarmy antagonist, Steve Carell, Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) — who sports a goofy wig, crooked prosthetic teeth and puffy sideburns — portraying the tennis hustler, betting man and chauvinistic braggart with a playful sense of friskiness. See, Beaufoy’s script establishes Riggs as one of two protagonists, viewers introduced to the larger-than-life showman as a gambling addict whose habit was fueled by his wealthy, long-suffering wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). We also meet 29-year-old feminist Billie Jean King, played by an excellent Emma Stone, La La Land (2016), when she’s in the midst of advocating equal pay for female athletes, butting heads with retired tennis champ-turned Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) chief Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman).
This was a time when female sports stars weren’t taken seriously, people like the sexist Kramer openly claiming that women weren’t as exciting to watch as their male counterparts, the slimy honcho rewarding the competing men with a cash prize about eight times larger than that of the women. King winds up walking away from the institution, taking a number of talented female players with her, the ladies forming their own tennis tour, led by chain-smoking promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), eventually establishing the Women’s Tennis Association. Along the way, the happily married Billie meets free-spirited Los Angeles hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), King forced to confront her sexual orientation after acting upon her strong feelings towards Barnett, the pair instigating a secret affair that, if discovered, could have destroyed King’s career, chiefly her sponsorship deals — a concern that many gay athletes still face today.
Eager to get back into the public eye, Riggs challenges the #1 female tennis player to a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ contest, the clownish attention seeker convinced that an over-the-hill sportsman can outmatch the top ranking female tennis player any day, Riggs relishing the role of the male chauvinist pig. After demolishing Billie’s homophobic rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) — who naively accepts the challenge — Riggs ups the ante by offering any female tennis player $100,000 to beat him in a re-match, thinking it’d be another easy victory. Backed into a corner, King decides to take Riggs on, so that she can disprove female inferiority, the heavily publicized match (which was watched by around 90 million people) ultimately sparking the women’s liberation movement.
Frankly, there’s not a lot of tennis in Battle of the Sexes, which is probably for the best, filmmakers more focused on surveying the murky politics of the period while letting Stone and Carell explore their somewhat exaggerated characters. Running at a lengthy 121 minutes, Dayton and Faris stretch the material by spending a bit too much time on King’s ‘coming out,’ this romantic subplot occupying a decent portion of the movie, which slows down some of the story’s momentum.
Baring something of a resemblance to his real-life counterpart, Steve Carell puts the ‘show’ back into ‘chauvinism’ as Bobby Riggs, a former tennis star stuck in a dead-end office job, the flamboyant loudmouth using his misogynistic guise as a way of escaping his own emasculation at home. If anything, Carell looks rather comfortable when he’s posing nude for magazines with nothing other than his tennis racket. Although far less interesting, Emma Stone sells the part of trailblazer Billie Jean King, Stone looking fab her Coke-bottle glasses whilst pulling off the retro hair-do. Even though Stone paints King as an outwardly confident figure, one determined to make a change, her nuanced performance allows some of King’s vulnerability to shine through, mainly in her scenes with Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion (2013).
As for support players, the aforementioned Riseborough probably fares best, the English actress exhibiting an innocent kind of awkwardness as King’s lesbian lover Marilyn. Bill Pullman, Independence Day (1996), is convincing as the intimidating Jack Kramer, who makes his disdain towards King quite clear, even on national television, while Sarah Silverman, School of Rock (2003), shows her dynamic range as Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis Magazine, who aided King on her long, uphill journey. Rounding out the cast, Austin Stowell, Whiplash (2014), is a bit dry as King’s husband and trainer Larry, who remained friends with his wife even after discovering she’d been sharing a bed with her hairdresser. And oh, Alan Cummings, GoldenEye (1995), has a few good lines as the troupe’s fashion designer Ted Tinling, who brings up a number of challenges that closet homosexuals faced back in the day.
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, American Hustle (2013), honors the ’70s aesthetic by shooting on anamorphic 35mm film, even if the shaky, handheld moments jar against the grainy lensing. Furthermore, costume designer Mary Zophres, Catch Me If You Can (2002), looks to have had a blast toying around with the period costumes and flashy uniforms of the era, all of which elevate the old-fashion production design. Bolstered by a first-rate soundtrack, which includes hits such as Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ and George Harrison’s ‘What Is Life’ — which features in a fun third-act montage — Battle of the Sexes is exceedingly well made, despite falling victim to a few Hollywood clichés, the big match coming across as a little preordained.
At the end of the day, one doesn’t have to follow tennis to enjoy this crowd-pleasing dramedy, as Battle of the Sexes delivers a strong forehand volley with a slew of winning performances. Considering that our leads are playing for gender equality and respect as opposed to sporting glory, Battle of the Sexes feels about as timely and relevant as the same-sex marriage debate that’s prevalent today.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie