Battle of the Sexes Review

By Rich Cline

 

A dramatisation of the real-life clash between tennis icons Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, this film is much more than a skilful re-enactment. It’s a witty and insightful exploration of the kind of person who chases sporting success and global fame, even when the odds are stacked against them. And it’s sharply well-played by Emma Stone and Steve Carell, who bring out the humour and pathos in their characters and the rivalry between them.

Battle of the Sexes Movie Still

In the early 1970s, Billie Jean (Stone) has finally had enough of being treated as a second-class member of the tennis world, since women win just an eighth of what male players get. But the head of the tennis association (Bill Pullman) refuses to budge, so Billie Jean and her publicist (Sarah Silverman) start their own rival ladies’ league. Meanwhile, former champion Bobby (Carell) is noisily shouting down this women’s movement, claiming he could beat any female player. And while Billie Jean tries to ignore him, she knows that there’s only one way to shut him up for good.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) packs a lot into two hours, digging beneath the story to explore both of these players in their private lives. Billie Jean is questioning her marriage to Larry (Austin Stowell) as she falls for her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). And Bobby’s gambling obsession is jeopardising his marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). The entire cast is terrific at bringing these people to life with scene-stealing quirks that keep the audience smiling. And both Stone and Carell skilfully reveal the resonant internal journeys King and Riggs are taking even as the situation becomes a full-on media circus.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) give the film a realistic 1970s vibe, finding clever parallels by playing up how public relations worked then and how it works now. Even more interesting is the way the film quietly highlights the fact that attitudes toward women haven’t changed that much in 45 years, although it’s definitely not acceptable to shout it as loudly as men did back then. King’s argument is unshakeable: women who sell as many tickets as men should earn the same pay. So why is this still a discussion in almost every workplace? The answer is that bigotry might not be quite as loud and obnoxious as it was in 1973, but it’s still there. The film never shouts this at all, but we get the point.