Co-directed by the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ helmers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ has come out of the festival circuit and probably has hopes of Oscar potential. This film tells the true story of Billie-Jean King (played by Emma Stone here), the Number 1 women’s tennis player of the early 1970s and a washed-up, has-been male tennis player, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) pitted together in a ridiculous rivalry that questioned whether a female athlete could rival a male one. It is set during the burgeoning ‘women’s lib’ movement, but of course still resonates today, not least in the world of tennis itself where the likes of Andy Murray has to constantly remind the media of Serena Williams’ achievements. I confess I was unaware of this event until the film came about, but it had a huge impact at the time. It was one of the biggest televised sporting events ever, with 90 million viewers and made a significant difference to the feelings of women who still struggled to get credit cards in their own names.
As told in this film, the match came about because King dared to challenge the huge imbalance between prize-money for male and female tennis players. When she was met with derision from the Association of Tennis Professionals, headed by Jack Kramer (slightly shocking to see Bill Pullman in an elder statesman role), she decided to ‘go it alone’, finding a group of fellow women tennis players to form the Women’s Tennis Association. Bobby Riggs, a successful player in the 30s and 40s, had fallen on hard times due to a gambling problem and marital problems (his wife Priscilla is played by Elisabeth Shue). So he comes up with the wheeze to challenge a female player to a match, first he persuades Margaret Court (who had recently had a baby), then he finally manages to ‘bag’ Bille-Jean King.
The performances in ‘Battle of the Sexes’ are astonishing across the board. I truly believe Steve Carell is one of the best actors we have working today and he should have received more attention for ‘The Big Short’ last year. The supporting cast is also exemplary; of course Andrea Risborough is the stand-out, as she is in anything. Risborough plays Marilyn, a hairdresser who goes on tour with the women and who starts an affair with Billie-Jean. Sarah Silverman is also fantastic as King’s agent and Austin Stowell sports the finest head of hair I’ve seen since Robert Redford’s heyday (whilst portraying King’s husband, Larry).
Frustratingly, although written by Simon Beaufoy, whose work I have enjoyed, the script didn’t really stack up for me. It’s also disappointing after ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (in which you felt like you knew and understood each member of that family) and ‘Ruby Sparks’ (a really great rom-com directed by Faris) that ‘Battle of the Sexes’ doesn’t quite work. For me, the main failing comes from the character of Riggs and his motivation. He is portrayed as a buffoon, doing anything gimmicky (playing tennis with sheep and in a variety of costumes) for publicity and money. This ‘challenge’ is just another extension of that, you certainly don’t get the impression that he was truly a vehement chauvinist – out to put women back in their place. He seems to be acting that role and playing it up for the cameras, but this disconnect isn’t made explicit or explored in enough depth. It’s also unclear whether King really believed or understood why he was doing it. Although reluctant, King allows herself to become part of this circus, during the peak of her career and I’m not sure I fully understood why. It didn’t allow her to be open about her sexuality, for example.
Alan Cumming’s character, Ted Tinling, who designs and makes the women’s tennis dresses also didn’t quite work for me. He is portrayed as stereotypically camp but is also shown trying to share a tender (actually cheesy and sentimental) moment with King in ‘solidarity’. Although all of the performances were excellent (I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Stone deserves the Oscar for this more than ‘La La Land’), ‘Battle of the Sexes’ did fall short, for me. I’m glad I got to see groups of middle-aged women clapping and whooping in the showing I saw and I was affected by an article about how important this real-life event was to a woman who was a young girl with an abusive father at the time. However, I feel that they deserved a better film than this – one that really got to grips with the motivations of the characters. And one that perhaps put the event more firmly in the context of the women’s lib movement of the time. Ultimately; great performances, shame about the script.
Full disclosure: I am adding 2 points to my rating for Andrea Risborough alone.
Directed By: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming