Director: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman
Running time: 121 minutes
Sensing an opportunity when Billie Jean King (Stone) and fellow female tennis pros start their own tour because of an unjust gender pay gap, former male star Bobby Riggs (Carell) challenges the women’s number one to a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ to prove once and for all who is superior.
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: the best sports films aren’t really about sport at all. The recent heavy hitters (and kickers) – the likes of Moneyball, Creed, and Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights – each offered very little comment on their respective sports, but instead showcased in-depth explorations into familial relationships, rivalry, identity, and inner-conflict. Even Goal! – the 2006 footie film that gave The Toon Army, and a certain David Beckham a taste of Hollywood glam – had its (grass) roots soaked in its fair share of earthy, universal themes.
And Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes is no different. Pitting Man vs Woman in a tennis match that serves (yep, we’re going there) as the allegorical cream atop some rather bitter social strawberries, this is the familiar story of sports star going up against the establishment and acing them – and in the process proving that more than one King can rock a pair of Blue Suede Shoes.
But, of course the film isn’t really about tennis at all. This is instead a glossy, stylishly layered examination of not only 1970’s gender frictions and feminist fist-pumping, but identity struggles for both chromosome couplings.
At one end of the court we have Emma Stone’s feisty, poster-girl of tennis Billie Jean who, in 1973, was at the top her game and on top of the world. At the other, we have Steve Carell’s former champ Bobby Riggs – the self-proclaimed chauvinist pig – who’s far from the sexist farmyard animal his on-camera persona claims to be, and whose life is now little more than a pork scratching. She might have the accolades and fame; he might have the house, the reputation and the trophy wife. But, away from all the on-court love, her growing infatuation with hairdresser Marilyn (Riseborough) sets her own love life at deuce, as suppressed feelings begin to surface that might just threaten her entire professional career. Inside, he’s a hollow chasm of his former self – out of the public eye, out gambling at all hours, out of his eldest son’s life, and in to the offices of shrinks and the sombre circles of gamblers anonymous groups.
Of the two, however, only one has the respect of Jack Kramer (Pullman) – head of the newly found ATP – and it sure as hell ain’t the current women’s number one.
And Kramer’s stubborn stereotyping leads King and Co. – with the aid of the sassy Gladys Heldman (Silverman) – to boycott the Lawn Tennis Association and start their own Virginia Slims tour (that’s right, the brand of cigarette). This in turn rejuvenates a desperate Riggs into challenging King to a match worth $100,000, while boasting that, even at 55, he can still beat any woman. After he dismantles one of her rivals, King duly accepts, knowing that something much more important than money is at stake.
In lesser hands, Battle of the Sexes would be little more than a conventional David vs Goliath tale drenched in all the lavish period-piece bells and whistles. And while there’s bell and whistled cliché around every corner – even those not familiar with the story can easily map the narrative checkpoints – Dayton and Faris’ depiction digs a little deeper to combine look and feel with an intelligent, balanced account where the most poignant of battles rages within our central duo.
Stone and Carell rightfully gain the plaudits; the former continuing her fine form post-Oscar glory, and the latter once again exhibiting his impressive ability to play off funny-man and troubled, tortured soul simultaneously. However, it is Andrea Riseborough’s turn as the seemingly timid, but self-assured Marilyn that deserves equally high praise. In a role that might’ve easily been nothing more than a side-piece to the grand-slamming, her nuanced performance is one that offers as much character depth as it does mystery and, with the aid of some beautifully intimate scenes – courtesy of Linus Sandgren’s warm cinematography – transforms the narrative from one of hollow sporting rivalry to one of deep human companionship.
For all its forehanding and backhanding, Battle of the Sexes is made memorable by its softer, cushioned touches. It might not be the exhilarating thrill ride we got with something like Ron Howard’s Rush, but this is nevertheless an important, empowering, and inspiring throwback that, thanks to some Alan Cumming final-scene prophesising, hits us with timely and damning parallels with the world today.