Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elizabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
I know nothing about sports. I’ve never found them very interesting and before I saw this film I could not have told you who Billie Jean King or Bobby Riggs are. I do however like sports movies a great deal. I think this is because I’ve found that the best sports movies tend to be the ones that aren’t about sports at all. Rocky, for example, is more than a boxing movie; it’s an underdog story about heroism, greatness and the American Dream. Friday Night Lights is more than a TV series about high-school American football; it’s a moving drama about teamwork, faith and community. Battle of the Sexes understands this and that is what makes it worth watching. This movie is about more than a tennis match between a man and a woman; it’s about the much larger conflict between the two genders, the female struggle for equality, and the culture of sexism in modern society that remains prevalent to this day.
The movie dramatizes the events leading to the 1973 match between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and follows both of their private lives. The story kicks off with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), Head of the Tennis Association, organising a tennis tournament that promises a $1,500 prize to the female champion and a $12,000 prize to the male champion. Offended by the shameless inequality, Billie Jean and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) resolve to form their own tennis championship and take all the best female tennis players with them. Along the way Billie Jean finds herself falling for her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and fears the effect this romance will have on her career and her marriage to Larry (Austin Stonewall). Bobby, himself a tennis champion as well as a gambling addict, takes notice of this public stance for feminism and sees the chance for his next big hustle. Proclaiming loudly his belief that a 55-year-old male has-been can easily beat the no. 1 female tennis champion in the world, he challenges Billie Jean to a one-time high-stakes tennis match for the entire world to see.
Being set four decades in the past, the film makes a strong effort to recreate the period and this extends to more than the costumes, hairstyles and music. This was a time period where a figure could take a public stance for chauvinism and be received with widespread applause and acceptance. Of course, this brand of sexism is still all too alive today, but it is no longer publicly accepted as a defendable position (only an excusable one in certain aggravating cases). By showing us this time in history where sports commentators, sponsors and organisers could openly and enthusiastically endorse and legitimise Bobby’s views with impunity, we can appreciate the Sisyphean task facing Billie Jean. She is being made to fight against a culture of archaic, frivolous notions of perceived superiority in a system that is rigged against her. ‘Battle’ is the appropriate word because it is very much a fight and it is one that rages on to this day. That’s why I wish the film hadn’t felt quite so superficial. The way it portrays Billie Jean and her struggles is done very well, but it feels a little disingenuous to show just how harmful Bobby’s views were and then to write him off as a harmless clown.
There are echoes of Falstaff in Carell’s portrayal of Bobby as an ignoble but lovable scoundrel, a hustler without honour or shame but more than enough charm to win people over. It’s a good, likable performance, but I cannot help but feel that making him likeable and even sympathetic goes against what the film is trying to stand for. Sure, it is important to show that there are two sides to any story, but that doesn’t mean the film cannot take a harsher view of Riggs and his sexist attitude the way it does to Pullman’s one-note villainous role. Stone as Billie Jean meanwhile is splendid. In contrast to Bobby’s assertive showmanship, Billie Jean is totally averse to the spotlight. She is shy and awkward but has a quiet determination that Stone showcases wonderfully. Her anguish over being torn between a man and a woman, both of whom care for her deeply in their own ways, is powerful and is well aided by Riseborough’s strong performance as the love interest who actually feels like an authentic, three-dimensional character rather than a typical movie love interest.
Battle of the Sexes is engaging and enjoyable and is a good movie. It makes a good use of its ensemble (apart from Pullman and Shue who are both given dull, simplistic characters), the story insofar as it focuses on Billie Jean is engaging and inspiring and the tennis match at the end was thrilling in a way that normal tennis matches never are for me. My only real issue is that it provides us with the safe Hollywood version of a story that could have been something deeper and more provocative. I get that this is meant to be a feel-good movie and that the movie wants to make use of Carell’s charm and comedic talent by showing Bobby Riggs to be a mischievous but likeable goofball who doesn’t really mean the rubbish he spouts and is just looking for his next big gambling fix, but it just feels a little inoffensive and insincere. If you take this movie for what it is, it’s fine; it’s good fun and worth a watch. I was just hoping for a movie that would dare to be as bold as its protagonist.