Don’t mind me, I’m about to step on a landmine as I’m about to talk about sexism. Unfortunately, it is still rife in our society and you can tell that by just looking at some of the news coming out of Hollywood recently. It is also the case in sports, with women competitors often being looked down upon even though they are often just as exciting. One of the sports where things seem to be equal, barring comments from John Inverdale that is, is tennis. But how did this sport get there? Well, Battle of the Sexes aims to tell you some of that story.
Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, The Help) is the number one women’s tennis player in the world, though she has been blackballed from the USLTA because of her campaign to be paid the same amount of money as the men. Self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, The Office) then challenges her to a big money match to prove she is worth equal pay and while she initially says no, eventually she agrees to one of the biggest tennis matches of all time.
What Battle of the Sexes does best is chronicle the lives of the two leads. We’ll start with Riggs to begin with. He seems like a smiley happy guy, someone who you could see having a large group around him laughing at the pub. But the movie is brilliant at teasing out his story and showing how sad he really was, even if he didn’t realize it. He’s definitely a sexist, but the way he decides to exaggerate this horrible side of him just so he can have a big money match is played more for sympathy than hatred. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely want to wring his neck but instead of having this ever-burning hatred of the man, you just feel sorry that he has to do this to stay relevant and have attention, which seems to be all he wants.
But it’d feel wrong to focus all the attention on Bobby Riggs because Billie Jean is the star of the show. She is often most remembered in popular culture for this gimmick match but this movie show shows we should acknowledge the hard work she put in to make sure today’s top female stars get just as much money as the men do. She is an absolute pioneer and the movie makes sure you know it. Her confrontations with tennis legend Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, Independence Day) are some of the best scenes in the movie because of the sheer grit shown by King. But it’s the scenes when she’s not fighting that really show how great King was because of how she was trying to keep it together so she could do what she really loved, play tennis. Billie Jean King has always been famous, but hopefully, should this movie get the popularity it deserves she’ll become an even bigger icon for feminists.
But Battle of the Sexes is not just about a feminist taking on a sexist. There’s more to this film than that, which is good because you can find feminists taking down sexists on Twitter for free. There is also a great exploration of Billie Jean being secretly gay. While the 1960s had happened and there had been a lot of sexual liberalization at that time, not enough had happened to a high-profile woman could be openly gay. Stone does brilliantly with this, especially when she is in scenes with lover Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, Birdman) where she is obviously very happy but also worried about what would happen should it ever get out to the press or her husband Larry (Austin Stowell, Whiplash). It’s just an exquisite performance all around from Emma Stone who will definitely be a nominee during awards season because of this. I do have to note how weird it is that everyone can work out that Billie Jean is gay from the tiniest clues, such as a bra being left in a hotel bathroom or by sharing a car with another gay person.
The performances from the cast are great all around. I’ve already praised the brilliant work done with the character of Bobby Riggs, but a lot of that is down to the great performance of Steve Carell. I’ve always had a theory that comedic actors are even better dramatic actors, and Carell’s streak in more serious movies proves it. Andrea Riseborough is fantastic too as she goes on the journey with Billie Jean as she realizes that she’s gay and has to work out what to do know she knows that. I also want to praise Sarah Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) who is a joy anytime she appears on screen as tour manager Gladys.
Weirdly, the part of Battle of the Sexes that doesn’t work that well is the match itself. In fairness to co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the actual match itself doesn’t lend itself to movie dramatics. Without trying to spoil it too much, there’s no dramatic comeback, no long spell of domination from Bobby which makes it seem like all is lost, nothing which you see in the usual movie sports match. And while we’ve seen those clichés a lot, they really work to make the climax dramatic. Because this match does not have that, it does lack something. Who’d have thought I’d be pining for clichés? 2017 has been a weird year.
Battle of the Sexes is the best sort of real-life adaptation because it tells a story that we should know about. And it really tells it well, so well that I really hope that Billie Jean King becomes a hero with feminists once again because of all the hard work she did in tennis all those years ago. There’s still a a long way to go in many sports and we need more women like her to pave the way. Of course, it’s disappointing that the match itself wasn’t as good as it could have been, but it’s all about the characters in this one and they really excel. Game, set and match.