Directed By: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written By: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Billie Jean King, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough
Before Mayweather and McGregor, there was another inter-promotional, glorified sideshow sporting bout, one that had a lot more riding on it than sheer prize money. It was a tennis match, contested in 1973, to a live crowd of thirty thousand plus and a viewing audience of 90 million, to this day the most viewed clash in the history of the sport. It was played between 55-year-old hall of famer Bobby Riggs, and then reigning women’s world number one, 29 year old Billie Jean King. Ostensibly the prize was $100,000, winner takes all. In reality, King was fighting for women’s equity in the sport, carrying the torch for women across the world entire who had been pegged back for their alleged biological inferiority.
Like all great sports dramas, Battle of the Sexes’ drama lays not in its sport. The eventual match between King and Riggs delivers all the tension and intrigue and fairy-tale goodness one could hope for in a light-and-easy historical drama, but there are more pressing matters afoot than aces and overhead winners. On one tier, the film, naturally, occupies itself with notions of the upmost currency: the female crusade for an even share, as pressing in the social spheres of 2017 as it was in the sports politics of 1973. On this front, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris overstate the already implicit significance of their subject matter, opting for a didactic tone fostered by a slew of character archetypes. There’s no two sides of the coin, no ambiguity in rights and wrongs. On one side of the net are the excessively smarmy villains, the Jack Kramer’s (Bill Pullman) of the world, the head of the Tennis Association who incurs the wrath of Billie Jean when he straddles women with only an eighth of the male prize money due to their not being as “exciting”. Accompanying Jack are Bobby’s high-roller buddies, who sip scotch and suck cigars as they muse over the temerity of someone like Billie Jean who dares to know her own worth.
On the other side is Billie Jean herself, the gallant underdog with a moral cause, flanked by her consigliere of sorts in the chain smoking Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and the bulk of the best women’s players in the world. Together, the group not only form a renegade tour (the WTA) in protest to Jack, but unite to quash the tireless cycle of chauvinism which encompasses their day to day lives; the film is rife with men linking women to laundries and kitchens, commenting freely on their appearance—“if she got a haircut and took off those glasses, you’d have someone vying for a Hollywood screen test” one commentator remarks of King as she takes the court. The sexism is laid on a little obtrusively, and whilst the validity of the gender equality stance is beyond question, the directors opt for the clinical chill of a lecture in their communication of it. That clinical chill is only exasperated by the film’s peculiar absence of style and panache. For a narrative so concerned with indominable bravery and over-the-top showmanship, Battle of the Sexes doesn’t swagger with the chutzpah the story begs for, nailing the physical details of the period without capturing the more defining free-wheeling energy. There are a lot of sideburns on show, but not so much cheek.
It’s when the story brings us close to Billie Jean the person as opposed to the crusading feminist that Battle of the Sexes escapes its banalities. The eventual bedrock of the piece is one we mightn’t have expected, Billie Jean’s grappling with sexuality, her homosexual urges breaking from their repression at precisely the wrong moment.
Encircled by the media’s sharks, and with a loving husband on the sidelines, it’s King’s fledgling relationship with her hairdresser-cum-confidante that poses the tennis stars’ greatest challenge. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett, something of a question mark, arriving into Billie Jean’s world like a spy in from the cold, swiftly, innocuously infiltrating the champion’s desires. The two interact in soft, gentle tones and grazes, Linus Sandgren’s intimate photography hanging on every moment of contact. Marilyn exposes the meek Billie Jean, the human Billie Jean, as the tennis champion battles furiously to keep her sexual longings in check, less they distract her from the task at hand.
Emma Stone stars in the central role, providing the film’s pulse with her performance, laconic yet expressive, deftly binding panic and insecurity with a steely exterior, permitting Billie Jean to be at once the gutsy hero all good underdog sporting fables demand, as well as the vulnerable human veracity requires.
Dayton and Valeri, unlike the men who occupy their film, do themselves pay equal due to men and women alike, taking time to locate the human in Bobby Riggs too, a middle aged serial hustler tethered to the dull realities of office work post tennis. Trailers for Battle of the Sexes seem to frame Riggs as some caricature portrait of misogyny, a mere antagonistic obstacle to be conquered en route to equality for Billie Jean and her all female co-council. But Riggs too is a man of complexity and inner-wrestlings. He’s fun-loving, exuberant, sharp tongued, clown-like, and desperately lonely.
Billie Jean’s crusade against male-centricity in the world of tennis spells publicity opportunity for Riggs, who presents himself as a beacon of perceived male superiority, begging to be toppled by a hungry woman; “eureka Billie Jean! male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist!” Riggs proposes to the world’s number one. Just how truly chauvinist Riggs is is up in the air. Perhaps the film too readily forgives Bobby for his sexist mind games and cheap mockery, but his not being dismissed as a cartoon, invite that image though he might, it is one of Battle of the Sexes great surprises, and successes.
Riggs’ chauvinism after all, might just be an act, an attempt to garner fame and attention to distract the aged star from the monotony of non-celebrity, a necessary evil if he is to back himself out of the corner in which his gambling addiction has boxed him. Steve Carell plays Riggs, with that same goofy charm and sense of understated tragedy that made him such a shining light in his last collaboration with Dayton and Valeri, the tremendously off-beat and entertaining Little Miss Sunshine.
It’s the performances which elevate Battle of the Sexes, boosting it above mere historical recreation and bringing its tall tale of epic humanitarian crusades to ground level; Via Stone and Carell, Billie Jean and Bobby are never awash in the broader significance of what their joust represents. This is ultimately a much more intimate story, one that occupies large moralities through a tighter lens. The end result is an often effective if occasionally dry saga of undeniably great relevance. It’s rather like King herself when all is said and done, steely and mission driven to a fault, but enlivened and humanised by a slew of greater complexities which dwell beneath the skin.