D: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton / 121m
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen, Jessica McNamee
Ah, the Seventies, a golden era for cinema, but not quite so good if you were a woman, or more specifically, a sportswoman. The disparity between what the men were paid and what the women were lucky to receive, by comparison with modern standards, was insulting. Battle of the Sexes, the latest from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine (2006), is very loosely based on the efforts of women tennis players such as then champion Billie Jean King (Stone) and several of her fellow players to break away from the United States Lawn Tennis Association, and establish their own independent, Women’s Tennis Association. In doing so, they not only challenged the entrenched male perspective that women’s tennis was somehow “inferior” to men’s tennis, but also that “people” didn’t want to watch women’s tennis because it wasn’t exciting enough.
This patriarchal view was espoused by the likes of Jack Kramer (Pullman), the head of the USLTA. It was refuted by Billie Jean and her (apparent) agent/manager Gladys Heldman (Silverman). Kramer’s blackballing of the women players who refused to play in any of the USLTA’s tournaments proved to be an unintended blessing in disguise, as it allowed them to find their own sponsorship and play in their own tournaments, and for more approrpriate sums of money (when Billie Jean won the US Open in 1972 she received $15,000 less than men’s champion Ilie Năstase). The movie depicts the effectiveness of this approach in establishing the quality of women’s tennis, and bringing it to a wider public, but then along comes Bobby Riggs (Carell), a one-time world tennis champion in the late Thirties and Forties. Riggs, a tireless self-promoter, challenges King to an exhibition match, asserting that he can beat any of the top women players purely because he’s a man. King initially declines his offer, but when he beats her rival, and current world number one, Margaret Court (McNamee), Billie Jean feels she has no option but to play him, and hopefully, advance the cause of women tennis players immensely. But if she were to fail…
Battle of the Sexes is an enjoyable mix of comedy and drama that has an ambitious streak that’s about a mile wide. Not only does it focus on tennis’s version of the glass ceiling, but it also finds time to explore the wider sexism of the time, as well taking a sideswipe at the era’s unhappy approach to gender equality and sexual liberation. Alongside the grandstanding of the match itself, King’s burgeoning awareness of her true sexual identity is dealt with by her having an affair with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough). This aspect of the movie is played out with a great deal of restraint, not just in how it’s presented physically, but also emotionally, with Billie Jean trying to put the genie back in the lamp and pretending nothing has happened. She can’t, of course, but the movie does make the viewer wait for her to stop pretending; after all, everyone else around her knows what’s been going on, including her husband, Larry (Stowell). In the end, the relationship becomes less and less important in the grand scheme of things, and the idea that it was somehow better to address the issue of Billie Jean’s sexual preferences than not, becomes more and more apparent.
Sadly though, and while the movie is enjoyable, it’s ultimately too lightweight for its own good. With themes such as sexism and sexual politics thrown into the mix, there’s ample opportunity for the movie to provide probing examinations of both these themes, but instead it skirts around them, looking to come up with a telling bon mot rather than something more substantial (in one of the movie’s more corny moments, Alan Cumming’s unsurprisingly gay fashion designer, Ted Tinling, tells Billie Jean that one day, they’ll both be able to love freely). There’s also no real sense that anyone is being held back or hampered from doing anything, or that any obstacles can’t be overcome (and at the first opportunity). Billie Jean’s affair with Marilyn relies on Larry being completely understanding about “everything” and not causing a fuss, while Gladys gets their first tour up and running with ease, and every run in with Kramer sees him being knocked down a peg by King at every turn, leaving him looking and sounding like a sexist bogeyman, something that is too simplistic an approach to work effectively (and which even Pullman struggles to pull off). All the real drama is saved for the match, but by then it has to work extra hard to reel in the viewer, who probably has a good idea (if not an actual one) as to the outcome.
Stone is terrific, rescuing some of the milder and less interesting portions of the movie by virtue of her commitment to playing Billie Jean and her ability as an actress to fold herself into the character, so that she brings her own vulnerability as a person to the role and uses her own feelings to establish that character’s interior life. It’s a much subtler performance than you might expect, and Stone is to be congratulated for the layers she brings to her portrayal, shading Billie Jean’s personality in such a way that it helps overcome the script’s more pedestrian moments. Matching her for commitment and sincerity is Carell, a perfect choice for Riggs who plays him as a man whose public persona is used to hide the insecurities he feels since retiring from the one thing that he’s good at (he does play the senior circuit but is unfulfilled by it). Carell has a great deal of fun with the role, and the viewer has every right to have fun right along side him, but Carell also ensures there’s an air of melancholy about Riggs that’s equally affecting.
Faris and Dayton assemble the material with a deft appreciation for the period it’s set in, and the politics of the time, but it’s Simon Beaufoy’s subdued screenplay that holds them back from making this entirely successful (which makes one wonder how the movie would have turned out if original choice Danny Boyle had been able to direct it). Still, they do manage to elicit good performances from the cast, and if there’s not enough in the way of truly emotional or dramatic highs and lows, they do keep things ticking over with a great deal of style and visual panache thanks to Oscar-winning DoP Linus Sandgren. If the movie doesn’t quite achieve its own ambitions, it’s still a good effort that can be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is, even if the material does lack depth and it decides not to take a more extensive look at its various themes and topics.
Rating: 7/10 – a movie that tries hard to draw parallels with modern day issues surrounding sexual politics, Battle of the Sexes is buoyed by Stone and Carell’s performances, and a giddy sense of the absurdity of the whole situation surrounding the “battle”; but while it’s enjoyable on a basic level, any attempt to look deeper under the surface will reveal a movie that trades too heavily on what’s superfluous and not enough on what’s meaningful.