Battle of the Sexes – London Film Festival

In a year in which women’s sport has received more television coverage than ever before, it seems appropriate to revisit one of the occasions that made that possible. 44 years ago, tennis ace Billie Jean King took part in an exhibition match against Bobby Riggs, a match he was sure he would win, that changed the view of women’s sport and the dedicated athleticism of its players. Battle of the Sexes is an insightful look at a core moment of change not just in sport but one that marked a shift in societal perceptions of female strength and ability.

Unusually, this film crosses two established genres and Battle of the Sexes is essentially a biopic meets sports movie. While the latter tend to unpick the particular personal characteristics that create individual success in a chosen sport examining their intensity, stamina and personal drive to be the best, the new wave of biopics have eschewed the cradle to grave approach to consider crucial periods in the lives of their protagonists. At the forefront of this redrawing of the biopic boundaries was Danny Boyle, the director of Steve Jobs, a film that will only grow in stature as it ages, and it is no surprise to hear that Boyle, who has long explored the boundaries between art, technology and popular culture, was one of the originators and producer of this new film.

In 1973 Billie Jean King led a significant revolt against the United States Lawn Tennis Association when they refused to make the tournament prize money equal for male and female winners. Establishing the Women’s Tennis Association with membership fee of $1, King and her fellow outcasts quickly set-up their own tournament and it is here that Battle of the Sexes begins as King butts heads with USLT President Jack Kramer. This is significant in the context of the exhibition match because the film argues that while the televised battle with the sexist Riggs may have been all anyone wanted to talk about, the true battle of the title refers to the one she had with Kramer.

But this is more biopic that sports movie and the film’s driving force in the first two thirds is Billie Jean King’s relationship with hairdresser Marilyn, a sensitively managed and engaging story that sees the two women drawn together by an instant chemistry and the consequent effect on King’s marriage and her ability to perform on the courts. The narrative drive comes from the various pressures on King to conform in her personal life and in the management of her tennis, which are pitted against her struggles to forge a new kind of sporting equality.

And this is very much King’s story, and while the character of Bobby Riggs is given plenty of screen time and his own crumbling marriage backstory to give context to his desire for shock-value attention, he’s really a sideshow to the various dramas and events of King’s experience at this time. The famed match itself, which takes up about 20 minutes at the end of the movie, the audience comes to realise is not the point of this film (as it would be in a pure sports movie), only that the circus it created was a platform for King to be taken more seriously in her call for change at an equally pivotal point in her personal life.

Appropriately co-directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the film revels in its 70s period detail but keeps the approach subtle and unshowy. Hollywood has been in love with this decade for some time and while films like the excellent American Hustle flaunted its 70s credentials, Battle of the Sexes is more restrained, sticking to a realistic look and feel without the self-consciousness of similar movies.

Emma Stone has become quite an accomplished character actor, unafraid to play less glamorous or quirky individuals, and earning an Oscar this year for the superlative La La Land (previewed at the 2016 London Film Festival). It’s always fascinating to see what an Academy Award winner does next and playing Billie Jean King allows her to throw off the rom-com heroine with ease and tackle a role that requires considerable sensitivity and the complexity of a person driven almost entirely by sport.

It’s rare that an actor makes films in the order that they’re released, but it is useful that the next big movie Stone is seen in is entirely different to her last. And the dual impact of the personal and professional collision explored in the film is one Stone manages with considerable aplomb. Her Billie Jean is by no means a timid creature, happy to go out on a limb against the Establishment to achieve her aims, and it’s clear that this determined energy and inner steel are part of the make-up of any high-ranking sporting star. Her refusal to be drawn into a war of words with Riggs, wanting her tennis skill to speak for her, signal King’s professional demeanour.

But, it is in the softer moments that Stone makes this film more than a by-numbers tale of triumph over adversity. Inwardly, she is timid, afraid of the emotions that frequently threaten to derail her and for a time affect her game. Every step forward with her sexuality is followed by guilt and self-flagellation which add to the confusion of feeling. Stone develops a believable connection with Andrea Riseborough’s Marilyn, but also a genuine care for her husband Larry and the root of her struggle is in trying not to hurt him without entirely negating her own feelings.

Steve Carell is given less to do as the self-styled ‘male chauvinist pig’ Bobby Riggs whose clown-like presence in the film adds much of the humour. With the focus on King, the relatively less time given to Bobby feels deliberate and Carell is clearly having a great time spouting his sexist nonsense and playing-up to Riggs’s cultivated public persona. But the film could have delivered more in terms of understanding his character and his constant need to prove that he is superior to the women he challenges. He’s given a crumbling marriage a love of the spotlight and a gambling problem that add some light and shade to the buffoonery, but it’s all relatively light-touch in comparison to the exploration of King’s character, so by the end of the film it’s still not really clear what his purpose was and what this added to his own sense of self-worth.

There’s an interesting supporting cast led by Bill Pullman in darkly unpleasant form as Jack Kramer who not only supports Riggs, but you feel he genuinely believes every word of his attacks on women’s tennis, so every appearance on screen induces a little shiver. Andrea Riseborough is likeable as hairdresser Marilyn and a convincing love interest while learning about the sacrifices of being a sports wife. Alan Cumming has a small but humorous role as the openly gay designer who dresses King, suggesting the double standard in this era that a man can be gay in certain professions, but as a woman and a sports star King was advised repeatedly to hide herself to protect her career.

Despite its subject there is relatively little actual tennis in Battle of the Sexes and while the famous exhibition match is proposed very early on, it does take a little too long to occur. But, by the time it does, Faris and Dayton clearly show what a circus it really was, delighting in the over-the-top details including both players being carried on in exuberantly decorated sedan chairs. And while the idea of it may be ridiculous – a 55-year old who refuses to train, playing a 29-year old at the top of her game – the real battle for recognition and acceptance was happening off the court with the men running American tennis.

The parallels with women’s experience today are strong and ones which many other reviewers have commented upon. Equal pay is still far from a right, and recent tides in UK and US politics have revealed deep-rooted division and bigotry with even the current White House incumbent known for his derisive views about women. Battle of the Sexes is not a perfect film and one that occasionally struggles with its duel biopic-sports movie approach which in focusing on Billie Jean, waters down the context and some of the surrounding characters. But only a decade on since Wimbledon awarded equal prize money for champions regardless of gender, and 44 years after Billie Jean King’s stand, Battle of the Sexes is a reminder that there’s still plenty more equality to fight for.

Battle of the Sexes received its European premiere at the London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on 24 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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