Battle of the Sexes

BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Austin Stowell, Marilyn Barnett, Jessica McNamee, and Alan Cumming. Directed by Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris. Rated PG (Mild themes, sexual references and coarse language). 121 min.

This American movie, billed as a sports comedy-drama, is based loosely on the tennis match that took place in 1973 between Billie Jean King, who was World No. 1 at the time, and Bobby Riggs, ex-tennis champion. The film focuses on King’s life and the circumstances that led to their match in the Houston Astrodome, US. The match was won by King in 3 straight sets.

Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) was three times Wimbledon champion at the time of the match. Also, she was involved integrally in the fight to prove gender equality, both on and off the tennis court. The absence of equality on court is indicated by the gap in prize money for women vs. men on the tennis circuit. Billy Jean won the US Open in 1972 and was given $10,000 in prize money, compared with a man who was given well over double that amount for winning the men’s title. Now, both the men’s and women’s champion at Wimbledon each receive 2.2 million pounds.

Bobby Riggs won the equivalent of the US Open as an amateur in 1939 and at 55 yrs. challenged 29 yr. old Billy Jean to prove to the world that a woman's place is in the home and not on the tennis court. At the time of his challenge, he was a showman, an acknowledged chauvinist, and  addicted to gambling. Riggs believed that he could win against any female professional tennis player who was brave enough to pit her skills against his own.

Imbedded in this film is a multitude of social issues. Off court, Billy Jean was married to Larry King (Austin Stowell), but was struggling personally to define her sexual identity, and was forming a sexual partnership with another woman, Andrea Riseborough (Marilyn Barnett). King believed passionately that it was important that sport should empower men and women equally. The film builds up the match as a special showdown. Riggs had beaten Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) on the tennis court the year before, and wanted to prove his point again.

Emma Stone plays Billy Jean King very well. She is determined, intense, humorous, and warm, and inhabits the role. Her performance is dramatically convincing, and she nails King’s well-known physical mannerisms. Steve Carell is less convincing. He is engagingly comic, but most of the time it is hard to forget the mannerisms and characteristics of the role he played so well in “The Office”, and his acting in comedies like “Anchorman”(2004). Such is his impersonation of Riggs,  that the attention-getting nature of his acting overshadows the impact of Stone’s more measured and insightful portrayal of Billy Jean King. The contrast between the performance of Stone and Carell throws the dramatic tone of the movie a little off balance.

At times, the film subtly reinforces prejudices that often lie behind gender discrimination. For example, the camera contrasts Riggs in his locker room, with King in her hair salon; and Carell “camps it up” frequently to demonstrate his comic flair - he trades desperation for comedic silliness in searching for behaviour that is calculated to amuse. Elsewhere, Alan Cumming, as Ted Tinling, who designs women’s tennis outfits and was a friend of King, taps prejudice of other kinds in his consistent efforts to look mincingly gay.

Technically, the film works well. It is hard to detect that King and Riggs aren't actually playing the match, and there are lots of close-ups of crowd and players that give energy to the action and nicely convey the drama of the “battle” that is going on. The final battle is tense and exciting.

Given the nature of some scenes, this movie is surprisingly PG. It captures King’s character, but is less successful in other ways. It explores many issues surrounding gender inequality that are still current, and, while not answering them, the film explores them in a single (sport) context. But one can't help but feel that the film at times communicates a male version of what gender equality is  supposed to be about. The film popularly entertains, but also sustains existing prejudices.

.Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Released September 28th., 2017