Review: Battle of the Sexes

The famed Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs 1973 Tennis Match gets the cinematised treatment from the Little Miss Sunshine team to winning effect. Emma Stone proves her mettle as the determined King in a film that works as a reminder of the choking sexism and homophobia that clogged Western Society less than 50 years ago. A rollicking entertainment!

The subject of this film was already made into a stellar 2013 documentary from James Erskine and Zara Hayes entitled The Battle of the Sexes. What’s refreshing to report as they both work as companion pieces to one another. The film, of course, dramatises the story much more heavily, but that doesn’t make the end product any less entertaining, authentic or informative.

So many parallels ran alongside this and the utterly horrendous marriage equality survey that’s decimating Australia at the moment. Both subjects bring forth the engendered bigotry in society and show just how unwarranted and normalised the behaviours are. For Battle of the Sexes there are two main points: Sexism and homophobia.

It’s 1973 and the Tennis Longarm of America’s (TLA) #1 seeded women’s tennis player is Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) fresh off her win and $100,000 prize pool. King, a confident and outspoken fighter for equality in pay and prize money for women in the competition sport, learns that the TLA has announced its next competition with the women set to get 1/8th the size of prize money than their male counterparts. When she questions sports celebratory commentator and TLA organiser Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), he pushes the point that men are the draw, not women. Dissatisfied, King announces she’ll start her own Women’s Tennis League of America and sets off to do it.

Meanwhile, 55 year old former tennis great Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the self titled Male chauvinist pig, spends his time with his 2nd wife and young son yearning for a return to the spotlight and unable to control his gambling habits. He concocts an idea – I’ll challenge the women’s #1 player to a match to prove that men are inherently the more superior species on the court.

What makes Battle of the Sexes such an entertaining film is what beats in the subtext. The revelation of King’s burgeoning homosexuality is sweetly addressed and is kept front and centre as the story progresses. The repression of her relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), the hyper-sensitivity of being caught, and King’s paranoia about how it will impact her career adds wait to the pervasive sexism on show.

Riggs’ fading star persona gets a third dimension as he’s played fully acknowledging his over-embellishments. Is he sexist? Sure. Is he as sexist as he plays up to the media? Probably not. Carell gives Riggs his all, given room to flex his reliable comedic muscles along with his dramatic side.

Having said that, the whole film hinges on Emma Stone’s turn as King. She dominates the film with a forcefulness and determination that you wind up rooting for her as the pieces are laid out in front of you.

Added to that is the event itself, the final 30 minutes of the film is rip roaring stuff as the engine of the movie ratchets up the pace. It’s a cracking finale of a match that you go into with the emotional weight of what both characters are risking.

Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay keeps things moving and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have fashioned an authentic looking and feeling 1970s set piece. Bonus, Margaret Court gets her dues.

Battle of the Sexes is a fist pumping pro-Equality film that sports top notch performances and a cracking true life story. It’s an affirmation piece of just how far we’ve come in women’s rights and still how much further we have to go. Get on board, this is a great ride!