Here’s a film that tells the story of the 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs – a former pro who won Wimbledon in the 40s, and was amid a serious relevance deficit – and Billie Jean King, a player who was all-but at the top of her game at the time. As it happens, the event was a showy, glitzy, over-the-top spectacle made for TV where the genders were pitted against each other, and there was a lot more at stake than just the results of a tennis friendly.
The strength of the film is that it does more than simply do justice to a moment in time (a memory I do not possess, for it predates me) or introduce people to a curious moment in cultural history. It places it in context of the times, and enriches our understanding of how far we as a culture have come, and how far we still have to go.
Aside from the physical attributes of the production (it has a look and feel of the early 1970s; the costuming, sets and even film stock is delivered with note-perfect nods to the era), directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) construct a film about Bille Jean King’s good-natured indulgence in a nonsense parade, going about a tennis match-as-spectacle to prove a bigger and far more substantial point. It says so much about gender equality, and LGBTQI+ rights now as much as it did then. The great Alan Cumming, as a fey British costumer, has a tender moment with King in the film’s closing moments, reassuring her that at a point, one day, that they all will be able to love who they want to. Makes a solid point amid this current ludicrous postal survey about marriage equality; I was also delighted to see Jessica MacNamee play Margaret Court as the film’s primary villain.
When it comes to lavishing praise on Emma Stone, there are not enough words. She’s fantastic in this as Billie Jean King. Faced with a world of obstacles to be simply taken seriously as an athlete, to get equal pay for selling the same amount of tickets… then to have this buffoon (Steve Carell; wonderful) challenge her to a match to ostensibly prove a nonsense point; AND have the ensuing tumult commensurate with discovering her dormant sexuality… Stone covers all the bases. For someone who has been *so* good in every genre she’s tackled, in close to every film she’s made; to come off an Oscar win in La La Land to set an even higher bar is something else. This is a fantastic piece of work from her.
There are also multiple layers to the work being done by Steve Carell. He plays Riggs as a man lost in a world where he has no actual, tangible place – the former athlete forced to work an actual job; yearning for the warmth only the spotlight can provide, and setting up a circus of a tennis tourney using the guise of gender wars… just to get himself some attention. He’s like Trump, only with a measure of sympathy. And to Carell’s credit, along with Simon Beaufoy’s tight, smart scripting that we get an insight to the mindset of the former athlete – what do you do when the music stops?
Battle of the Sexes takes a moment in history with a well-known conclusion, adds significant depth to its human characters and makes a docudrama more of a parable for modern times. Great film.