Battle of the Sexes recounts the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The exhibition match gained importance as Bobby Riggs claimed he could beat any female player and that the outcome would put to bed issues such as equal pay and even equality in general. Billie Jean King reluctantly rises to the challenge.
The gala event at the London Film Festival 2017, was attended by the directors of the film, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who conceded that the events of the film have developed a much greater relevance since November 2016. There are many similarities between the chauvinistic showboating of Bobby Riggs and the reactionary campaigning of Donald Trump. It is very rewarding to watch a strong female figure fight back against oppression.
However the portrayal of Bobby Riggs by the filmmakers and Steve Carell is interesting. He is not a straightforward misogynist but rather a gambling addict who craves relevance. Carell plays a tragic Riggs who is shameless enough to use the sexist angle of the match to garner publicity and revitalise his failing celebrity. His performance is very nuanced. The scenes between him and his family beg sympathy for the controversial figure. He is also charismatic enough to completely justify the attention paid to him and the unlikely amicability between him and King.
It is, however, very much Emma Stone’s show. Stone portrays Billie Jean King as a fully rounded character, turning the icon back into flesh and blood. In addition to being tough and assertive she is charming and relatable. She takes extraordinary actions throughout the film, such as breaking away from a national tennis organisation over equal pay issues. She is bold and yet Stone is able to portray the huge uncertainty she must have experienced in taking these decisive actions, including the striking sequence where she finally agrees to play Bobby.
One of the most upsetting aspects of the film and the story is that King was such a powerful, outspoken figure and yet even she recognised the importance of hiding her lesbianism from sponsors, out of fear that the scandal would undermine her endeavours. The matter-of-fact nature of the discrimination of the 1970s is heart-breaking.
King’s lover Marilyn Barnett is portrayed by Andrea Riseborough. The scenes between them offer insight into the private world of King and the anguish she silently suffered throughout the controversy of her career. The two are very natural together. The initial meeting scene is intimate and exciting.
Dayton and Faris as directors are brilliantly able to evoke the time period. The actual tennis sequences are completely thrilling. Simon Beaufoy’s script manages to keep all of the elements in play and balanced to ensure a compelling and frictionless investment in the story.
Battle of the Sexes is more than an exciting sports movie and a superbly acted biopic. It’s an emotional and bold plea for understanding and equality. It’s a wonderful reminder of the importance of small victories.