Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Jessica Mcnamee, Fred Armisen, Lewis Pullman, Martha MacIsaac, Mickey Sumner, Bridey Elliott, Eric Christian Olsen, Wallace Langham, Matt Malloy.
In 1973, former Wimbledon champion and first-rate serial tennis hustler, gambling addict and sexist braggard Bobby Riggs played women’s champion Billie Jean King in a spectacular tennis match at the Houston Astrodome, a landmark match that ultimately had repercussions for the status of female tennis and the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.
Riggs (played here by Steve Carell) was a former #1 ranked player and a three times Wimbledon champion, who eked out a living on the senior’s circuit and who also participated in bizarre challenges for money. He was a gambling addict whose habit was largely supported by his wealthy and long-suffering wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, from CSI, etc), who is beginning to tire of his habits and behaviour. He was also desperate for attention. Billie Jean King (played by Oscar winner Emma Stone, from La La Land, etc) was advocating equal pay for female tennis players and for them to be treated seriously as professional athletes. She had been butting heads with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the powerful head of the ATP, over the issue of equal pay for female players. Female athletes, especially tennis players, were not taken seriously at this time, and were considered not exciting to watch. They were supposed to only be seen in the kitchen or the bedroom. When Kramer refused to give in to her demands she started her own rival WTA tour.
Riggs had challenged any “hairy-legged feminist” to a match in order to support male dominance in the sport. He beat world #1 Margaret Court in straight sets, and then buoyed by that success he upped the ante. He offered $100,000 to any female tennis player who could beat him. Riggs bragged to the media that he was putting the “show back into chauvinism.” The 29-year old King eventually agreed to take on the 55-year old chauvinist Riggs at his own game in a heavily hyped tournament. She was playing for pride and to bring dignity to female tennis players. The result changed the nature of professional tennis and the status of female tennis players forever.
At that time though, King was also undergoing some personal problems and coming to terms with her own sexual orientation. Although married to Larry (Austin Stowell), her loving and supportive husband and tennis promoter, Billie Jean developed strong feelings for Marilyn Bartlett (Andrea Riseborough, from Birdman, etc), a beautiful young hairdresser. Given the times though King was unable to openly share her emotional connection to Marilyn because it may have destroyed her professional career.
This dramatization of that famous match, which was watched by a worldwide television audience estimated to be around 90 million, explores the subversive politics of the period, and touches on topical issues such as gender politics in sport, equality, sexual orientation, gay rights, and respect – themes that are still relevant and important today. It’s such a great story that it’s surprising that it hasn’t been tackled on screen before now.
The film has been written by Simon Beaufoy, who is better known for his collaborations with Danny Boyle on films like the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, etc. And while the tennis match between King and Riggs is fittingly the centrepiece and climactic moment of the film, Beaufoy has also concentrated on King’s personal journey in this period. However, the bittersweet romance between King and Bartlett does slow the film down unnecessarily, and the pacing is a little uneven. Nonetheless Beaufoy does a good job mixing the personal drama with some great, lighter moments of humour.
This enjoyable, crowd pleasing film is the third feature from husband and wife directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the Oscar winning Little Miss Sunshine). They do a good job of putting that game changing match into its historical perspective, and their handling of the climactic tennis match is superbly choreographed and staged. Oscar winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land, etc) also does a superb job of capturing the tone of the era with his washed-out colour palette that references the classic cinema of the 70s, giving the material a strong sense of nostalgia. Period detail, costumes, hairstyles and locations also reek of authenticity.
The casting of the two leads is spot on, with both Carell and Stone bearing a strong resemblance to their counterparts. Carell is perfectly cast here and revels in the role. He brings a wonderful sense of bravado and humour to his portrayal of the larger than life character of Riggs, playing him as something of an egotistical clown still living on past glories. But he is a colourful and interesting and nuanced character, and Carell makes him likeable enough despite his casual air of misogyny. Wearing King’s trade mark steel rimmed glasses and shaggy black hair style, Stone is almost unrecognisable here as she completely inhabits the character. She is strong as the quietly determined, optimistic King who is trying to change the world, but she somehow comes across as a less interesting character than Riggs. Although outwardly confident, Stone brings a hint of vulnerability to her performance in those scenes that explore her tentative sexual awakening.
Riseborough brings a hint of naivety and innocence to her performance as Bartlett. There is a good chemistry between her and Stone that elevates their scenes together. However, the romance between King and Bartlett does slow the film down unnecessarily, and the pacing is a little uneven. Pullman brings a smug and smarmy quality to his performance as the intimidating and small-minded Kramer, whose attitude towards female players is nastier and unbending. Rounding out the supporting cast are strong turns from Sarah Silverman (Wreck-it Ralph, etc), who is good as powerful female tennis promoter Gladys Heldman, and Alan Cummings, who brings a hint of flair and flamboyance to his performance as former player turned fashion designer Ted Tinling, whose colourful designs also shook up the conservative tennis establishment.
You don’t have to be a tennis fan to enjoy this entertaining character driven sports biopic. Battle Of The Sexes deals with some big themes and boasts some winning performances, but it somehow seems a little long and it also serves up many of the usual cliches of the genre.