Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Sarah Silverman, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Jessica McNamee, Austin Stowell, Elisabeth Shue
Plot: Offended that female tennis players have a lower cash money prize than the men, Billie Jean King (Stone) set up their own female tennis league.
I am not particularly interested in tennis. The idea of a tennis movie doesn’t really appeal to me. However, the brilliant thing about Battle of the Sexes is that it is so much more than a sports movie. It is a monumental moment in the history of, not just sports, but the feminist movement. This is a film that screams about the fight for equality. This is also a film with Emma Stone in it and that never hurt anyone.
It opens up with the women already taking back the sport for themselves. After becoming one of the top female players in the world, Billie Jean King discovers that the upcoming tennis tournament she is up for has a much lower cash prize for the winner of the female competition. Infuriated, she pulls out of the competition, risking her place in Wimbledon. The women tennis movement proved that whatever men could do women could do better. As they practiced for the upcoming competition, they also did the marketing, the ticket sales and tended to the locations. It was an incredible feat and the kind of major victory that sets this film off to a good start. However, Battle of the Sexes is mainly about how even when women were proving that they could be as equal as the men, there was still this false male dominance over women. You will end up just as frustrated as Billie Jean King at the sheer stubbornness of the male population. At the same time, as setting up Billie Jean King’s feminist movement, the movie also focuses on has-been tennis player, Bobby Riggs. Secretly gambling under his wife’s nose and bored to tears with being out of the media, Riggs sees Billie King’s rise to power and sniffs out an opportunity to get back in the public eye. Painting himself as a chauvinistic pig, he becomes the figurehead for every man out there, worried that women are going to pull the comfortable rug from under their feet. Carrell works hard to keep the character likeable (and succeeds with distinction). The trick is to focus on how Carrell’s sexist ramblings are more media-baiting than actual womanising, pinning more of the blame on Bill Pullman’s malicious tennis promoter. Besides Carrell’s outrageous women-bashing is the right side of comedic (“I am gonna put the show back in chauvinism!”). It is hard to explain without actually watching this amazing actor do his thing, but Bobby Riggs is a hard man to hate. However, as you would likely expect, it is Emma Stone who impresses. On one hand, the character isn’t really the kind of meaty figure that an actress can do much with. She might have done all these amazing things, but as a person, she was just in it for the sport, keeping herself to herself. While Carrell loves playing the character who is so cinematic in real life, he just has to turn up and add his own Carrell spin on things, Emma Stone’s big scenes consist of keeping herself to herself. It is powerful in its own way; this is a girl who doesn’t necessarily want to be this big centre of attention, but cannot live with leaving this inequality still standing. She gets more satisfying material in the film’s closing notes, as she wrestles with the weight of hiding a lesbian affair from the world and the fact that even her close team-mates don’t expect her to win. It might not be Stone’s showiest performance, but it is definitely mesmerising.
And then there is the match. Directors Dayton and Faris work wonders to make the build-up to the sport as tense as possible. There isn’t really too much tennis beforehand, a movie about tennis, but not trying to ram in as many matches as possible. This is a film about the passion and complexities ticking away in the background of the tournament, rather than the drama on the court itself. As much as the fight for equality really brings the stakes alive, sexism isn’t the only drama on the court. It isn’t by accident that Alan Cumming plays the homosexual costume designer or Billie Jean King is hiding a lesbian lover. This is a movie about equality in general. On top of that, there are a few other items thrown into the pot to make the final game more exciting. Steve Carrell’s Bobby Riggs might be the villain of the piece, but he puts so much into the game that you realise if he loses, he will have nothing. There is a tragic naivety to Riggs that makes him even harder to put down. You want Emma Stone to win, but you don’t quite want Riggs to lose. The actual match rides off of the stakes set up beforehand, to the point where it doesn’t actually have to use astonishing cinematography tricks during the actual tennis. It is filmed like an actual tennis match on the television to the point where you have to wonder whether they resorted to ripping archive footage off for the final edit. The end result is a heart-warming victory, dampened only slightly by the fact that we are still arguing about equality in this day and age. It makes Billie Jean’s hard actions here feel slightly under-whelming.
Final Verdict: You don’t need to love tennis to appreciate the power of Battle of the Sexes. It is simply a great movie.