Billie Jean King is the women’s tennis number one but will never settle for second best in life. Her quest for women to have equal pay, recognition and rights is why she’s the best, because she believes that is the most effective way of getting her voice heard. Bobby Riggs is a has-been tennis champion, ambling what he has left in hopes for a little more interest and a lot more infamy. Happy to proclaim himself the ‘chauvinist pig’, Riggs sees an opportunity in King to have his name ring out once more whilst cementing a phallic shaped ego that can be used to hammer the rising female spirit back to the kitchens and bedrooms.
Biopics can seem imbalanced by the telling of one side of a story or event that can give false pretences. Battle of the Sexes could be accused of being one sided but when the choice is bigotry, chauvinism, elitism and machismo vs what is right, there’s only one side a viewer should want to be on. And yet the story that of Bobby Riggs is given almost as much time as Billie Jean King’s because liberalism often equates to equality. And what better way is their to show a pig and the caustic culture he feeds off of and into, than by telling its tale.
Emma Stone shines, as ever she does, in the reserved skin of Billie Jean King. A wonder woman who allows the casual misogynistic lingo to brush by her as she looks toward grander forms of justice. Stone’s usual witty charisma is held at bay as King is a reserved type, fighting the battles of mind before opening her mouth. Perhaps that is why Riggs gravitated toward King in pursuing her to play him, to host his sideshow, to panda to his priggish oinking for cameras. Not as menacing as John Du Pont in Foxcatcher but nonetheless deplorable in his nonchalant disregard for women as sidecars to the motor of man, Steve Carell is also on terrific form. As the renowned nice guy of Hollywood, he must have struggled to reel off the sum of remarks incendiary to progress that he does as Riggs.
The film doesn’t rush toward the titular battle of sexes, it builts to it, offering an eye into socio-political world King and Riggs inhibit. We see King’s resolute commitment of herself to the pursuits of social justice all the while leaving commitments to herself waning. Although married to a mannered, respectable gentleman in Larry, Billie realises that she may have been lying to herself for sometime in where her sexual predilections lie. Realising this when she meets Andrea Riseborough’s hairdresser Marilyn, who shows Billie a new world of freedom and giving oneself up to personal desires.
It’s a testament to the storytelling of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, as though this love triangle is traditionally wrong in movie-land morality, there is no villain dressed up in jealousy or dominion. Though many male side-characters spout lines that will leave a bad taste in one’s mouth for the sheer disdain for anything not overtly, idiotically masculine. In the litany of acts of bigotry, some as subtle as a looming hand on a female shoulder or a sneering snigger, a rhetoric is created for 1973’s conversationalist misogyny all in the cause of a pissing contest. It is disheartening to realise this context for masculine masturbation not only perpetuates amongst the every(other)man but has made its way into one of the most powerful offices in the world.
The prominence of the consistent chipping away of the female form within Battle of the Sexes is a reminder that things only change when good people fight hard. Billie Jean King fought very hard, only accepting to play an oafish, has-been tennis player to deny a world all too ready to point a finger of condescension at a female whenever she may fail. And though the gender pay gap still hasn’t been bridged within sport or many workplaces around the world, the many gasps, guffaws and tuts I heard in the screening at the sexist remarks was a sign that times have changed. Enough to warrant a reaction rather than nonplussed acceptance as can be seen in the film.
Amongst the politically charged motif, sexual identity crises and love trifectas, there is a bloody good sport film. The tennis is framed match style, giving the viewer an immediate buy-in to the action on screen as if they’d changed the channel over during Wimbledon to see a heated rally.
Stone scurries across the court with King’s precision style and Riggs’ showboating racket swinging is presented with personality by Carell – scenes of Riggs promoting the match by playing tennis with a frying pan or dressed as Little Bo Peep are entertaining for a laugh at the acts rather than with them. Fine acting of itself in how authentic they are as these real world people but the tennis still holds tension in its back and forth. Every point won in this film would have been a point in the real world unlike other films featuring tennis as a plot device (I’m looking at you Strangers On A Train with your foul balls winning match points).
Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton manage to retain the irreverent laughs they captured so beautifully in Little Miss Sunshine whilst keeping the democratic tone expected in a biopic. An edit ten minutes shorter could give a more propulsive pace but overall scenes play out with an energy to them that keeps the viewer engrossed in the diverse themes giving a spine to the film. This is helped no end by a troupe of interesting, three dimensional characters that surround Billie Jean and Bobby.
Sarah Silverman brings her usual witty zest, commanding and caring for the small legion of female tennis players brave enough to break away from the confines of the Lawn Tennis Association. Though the collection of tennis players are never fleshed out enough to care for other than Natalie Morales’ Rosie Casals unfortunately. Alan Cumming is Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, a gay fashion designer looking after Billy Jean with sass and supervision. Bill Pullman is dishonourable as the bigoted tennis association head, often showing an engrained chauvinism toward women but unable to give reason for his inability to see worth in the Women’s Liberation Movement and the conversation it was trying to ignite. Elizabeth Shue as Priscilla Riggs is the anchor to Bobby’s outlandish traits although he may see her as a ball and chain. She embodies a sternness that actually humanises Bobby as it alludes to a human being within his caricature of a persona.
The aforementioned Andrea Riseborough is alluring yet sweet and utterly believable as a left-field love interest. Billie Jean’s husband Larry King played by Austin Stowell is endearingly earnest. Though he is caught between his wife, her tribulations and her sexual ambiguity, he continues to support her. This is refreshing from the directors in that they didn’t dive into melodrama but were confident and smart enough to give the viewer a man who is at his core, a very good human being. Larry stops the film becoming a witch-hunt for, as he sets a standard of men who can and do support women in their pursuits and not the other way around.
Battle Of The Sexes is an integral film exploring an interesting changing of tides in a zeitgeist entrenched in its top-down view that Mother Earth is paradoxically a man’s world. It is propelled forward by an array of character’s full of zeal who exist with or without a movie camera in front of them. There are laughs, tears and disdainful head-shaking to be had here with a few scenes that are aces (sorry, I felt obliged to include at least one tennis pun) in the genre. A lingering shot of a poster scrawled with ‘Billie Jean For President’ on it is a slice of iconography that is as relevant for hope now as it was in 1973. Though conversations are being had about equality in all its forms, I believe in film as a propagator of meaning. And as a wise woman once said, “You have to see it to be it.”