by Jamie Brown
Since we are in an unusually rich period for tennis films, it’s hard not to make comparisons, and Battle Of The Sexes certainly has both notable similarities and differences with the recent Borg vs McEnroe. Each film, while ostensibly about one famous match, is in fact more of a biopic on one of the participants. In the case of the latter film, Bjorn Borg’s life is the one put under scrutiny, while Billie-Jean King is undoubtedly the chief subject of the former. Interestingly, the two films also mirror each other’s flaws; while Borg vs McEnroe is an art house film that gets a bit over-serious about a purely sporting rivalry between two men, Battle Of The Sexes takes an event that had implications far beyond sport and sells it short with Hollywood fluff.
Battle Of The Sexes; Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; Festival strand: Headline galas; USA 2017, 121 mins. Our rating: ★★★/5
The events portrayed in this film took place in 1973. Already bristling about inequality in the game, King, then the world’s number one player, decided that a new tournament offering prize money eight times greater for the men’s champion than the women’s was the last straw. King led a female boycott of the regular tour, and formed a breakaway organisation to run women’s events that would later become the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). In response to the publicity received by the new tour, retired champion and gambling addict Bobby Riggs branded women inferior and promised to prove it by beating any woman who dared challenge him.
King, a married woman, was by this time also suffering some private turmoil regarding her sexuality. The inaccurately dramatised version of events here sees King (Emma Stone) discover her attraction to women via an affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, in the film’s stand-out turn). Adding to the pressure of this secret, and a challenge to her number one status, Riggs (Steve Carell) tries to goad King into taking up his challenge.
Riggs’s character is relatively well fleshed-out; we learn of his marital problems, his shortcomings as a father, and his non-attempts to deal with his compulsive gambling. Riggs is not actually played as a bad guy at all; his self-styled persona as a ‘male chauvinist pig’ and outrageous neanderthal statements about women’s roles are all framed as little more than a hustler’s trick; boxing-style PR to promote the exhibition matches and attract sponsorship money. Riggs’ clowning allows Dayton and Faris – whose skill with irreverent comedy was the highlight of their previous hit, Little Miss Sunshine – to play to their strengths as filmmakers. King isn’t fazed by Riggs’ behaviour either, instead targeting her ire at tennis governor Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a WASP-ish behind-the-scenes power figure with equally awful views, who is played against Riggs as the more serious personification of institutional sexism.
Oddly though, the character that actually comes across as the film’s biggest villain isn’t a man at all. That dubious honour goes to King’s arch-rival Margaret Court. If you include the pre-open era, Court is still the most successful women’s player of all time. These days, Court is a Christian minister and professional nasty piece of work, with a hobby of making loathsome anti-LGBT comments in public. The Australian is rewarded here with a well-earned hatchet job, shown to be a pious enemy of progress even back then. Court was the first woman to take on Riggs’ challenge, in a less-hyped event, and she was thrashed. The film wants you to believe that Court lost because she treated it as just another match, while King triumphed thanks to the added motivation of the feminist cause. This is definitely stretching it, though I dare say no one will be losing any sleep.
Battle Of The Sexes is pure popcorn escapism likely to play better to audiences than critics. The main characters are drawn adequately and boosted by fine performances, and the rest of the cast produce some memorable cameos; Alan Cumming camps it up as designer Ted Tinling and, as always, we could do with more of him; Sarah Silverman gives it plenty of sass as King’s partner-in-progress, Gladys Heldman. If you can stomach the almost inevitable over-exposition and lines so on-the-nose they need a klaxon (Cumming gets a closing line of “one day we’ll all be free to love who we want”), then there’s more enough fun to be had, and the two-hour runtime skips by. It also makes an excellent job of its tennis scenes, using real tennis players as body doubles to recreate rallies that look very realistic for their time. This proves much more effective than the technique used in Borg vs McEnroe, where the actors mime and the ball is CGI.
It is pleasing to see King getting the Hollywood hero treatment, but consider this: today the WTA’s media rights are worth over $500 million. Of the top ten highest paid female athletes in 2016, eight were tennis players. Tennis remains the only professional sport in the world where women share top billing with men at the same events, and women receive equal prize money at the sport’s four annual major tournaments. Essentially, Billie-Jean King did that. These might be considered achievements worthy of a little more gravitas.
Battle Of The Sexes will be in UK cinemas October 20th 2017.