"Business, sports, you name it, the very top is a man's world."
You often get movies that take on greater meaning depending upon the time at which they are released. Granted, a sports biopic about the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell is an intriguing prospect. But if ever there was a time when a movie addressing the place of women gaining respect within their own profession in the wake of gross chauvinism, now seems like a pretty good time for that. Of course, I can’t for the life of me imagine why…
The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) became the most watched televised sports event of all time. Trapped in the media glare, on the tennis court King and Riggs were on opposite sides of a binary argument, but off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles that fuelled their desire to win even more.
On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Battle of the Sexes’ will play out as any standard, inspirational sports biopic with a strong message might. But the movie actually surprised me in how light hearted it was, in a good way. Rather than a heavy handed message that ends up becoming more important than the actual story of the story itself (are you listening 2005’s ‘Crash’?) it takes a more deft approach in telling a story of two unique individuals whilst showcasing a message of social equality in a way that’s both entertaining and endearing, if not without flaws.
Not only does its representation of these figures stay true to history, but it also makes for a much more interesting story. To portray Riggs as an evil misogynist would be too easy, but to take the approach of showing him as a former professional with heavy gambling losses who saw a chance to regain some of his stardom and adopted a villainous persona to ensure it garnered attention is not only accurate but far more entertaining. Steve Carell is immensely watchable and oddly charming in the role. He displays Riggs’ showmanship in a way that is enjoyable to watch but also manages to convey the heavier drama that was developing outside of the tennis court and press conferences.
Directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris breeze through the plot points of the movie in favour of focussing more upon the struggles of the characters. They seem intently and genuinely interested in exploring the personal details of each opposing player’s lives. The result is a movie that devotes equal attention to both of its protagonists and seems all the more endearing for it. Though it would have been interesting to see them examine the wider cultural environment around the match, this intimate approach is a pleasing one as well.
That is not to say they don’t draw some modern parallels though. The movie makes a point of how the real chauvinistic villains of this story seem to be the institutions around tennis at the time. The head of the tennis association, played by Bill Pullman, offers a tournament in which the male winner receives an award of $12,000 whilst the female champion only receives $1,200, prompting King and a number of other women to form the Women’s Tennis Association which catches the eye of Riggs who in turn challenges her to a match. It’s those kind of touches that help make ‘Battle of the Sexes’ more memorable and though it never quite tackles the issue head on, it presents it in a manner that’s involving enough.
There are a few missteps within the movie, particularly when the movie tries to generate drama and ends up coming across as contrived and at odds with the tone the film establishes to that point. It’s not that it would be impossible for ‘Battle of the Sexes’ to add a higher level of drama to proceedings, in fact it does just that very well numerous times, it’s just that on a few occasions it seems to clash with the overall tone of the movie. But putting that aside the film’s script is solid. It subtly explores the nature of its two central figures such as their motivations and history. It treats them each with great respect and drawing a number of parallels between them that make the story that much more enriching.
The most valuable part of the movie for me though was Emma Stone, whose performance is fantastic. She perfectly conveys the strength and determination of Billie Jean King, making the admiration and iconic status that was bestowed upon her instantly understandable. She also does a great job of presenting the conflict that weighed on King as details of her personal life started to become ever more complicated. I won’t spoil it for those who are unfamiliar with the true story but I can say that it makes for some truly endearing drama.
‘Battle of the Sexes’ is a crowd pleasing dramedy that boasts two excellent performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell.