Battle of the Sexes, review

After becoming the most successful female player of all time, Billie Jean King is challenged to a match from retired male player, Bobby Riggs.

Tennis movies are a difficult one to crack. It’s not the most cinematic event to watch and it’s only occasionally exciting. How do you create an exciting film in which one ball gets hit around a court by two people? Well, you cut it out of most of the movie. This is what Battle of the Sexes has done, which focuses more on the of politics of man vs. woman than the sport itself. A smart move from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Based on true events from 1973, it begins with Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) winning a pivotal match which makes her the most succesful female tennis player of all time. Shortly after, she’s told by her sassy friend Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, clearly enjoying herself a lot) that the women’s prize money will be considerably less than that of the men’s. This news triggers a surprise meeting with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the man who has made this decision based on his own sexist views which essentially boils down to men are better than women. It’s this encounter which spurs Billie to start a rival tournament.

It’s impossible to keep count of the amount of sexist and patronising comments said by men which, whilst frustrating, serve a narrative purpose to the feminist story being told. Billie takes on the establishment for not helping her and other female tennis players despite selling just as many tickets as their male counterparts. The discourse in female rights, social politics and male dominance is rife throughout the movie’s central plot. Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs is one one of these men. Frustrated by his post tennis career and working at his father in-laws business, he gets the idea to play against Billie during a late night tennis match which is funding his gambling habbit.

The pacing of the film is perfectly executed, going from the rise of Billie’s defying tournament, and moving on to her personal life whilst weaving it into her career. There’s a real sense of creating a narrative which links together very nearly, and with it’s smart writing from Simon Beaufoy, it achieves this with ease. The tension between King and Riggs builds before the climax towards the end.

Carell and Stone both give perfect performances. The former as the flamboyant, over the top, annoyingly charming (despite his sexist remarks) Riggs. He has channelled what it’s like to go from world phenomenon to working in an office, becoming increasingly irritated by his own mundane existence. The latter convincingly battles with countless men regarding their views on what women can and can’t do as well as concealing her sexuality during a time when it was not considered wholesome to be anything but straight and married with children. At one point she meets the open minded and going with the flow Marilyn Barnett played by Andrea Riseborough. The pair have an immediate spark which is difficult to fake. Stone embodies the most perfect version of Billie Jean King; an activist in a repressive time. 

It’s an impressive sports film without much sport, it deals with the gender politics perfectly and accurately looks at how tough women had it (and still have it). It’s final match fails to get to the lofty heights of excitement you usually witness in a boxing movie however it’s more than that. It shows how far we’ve come and how far we’re yet to go.

4 out of 5. 

Keep. It. Reel.

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