‘Male chauvinist pig versus hairy legged feminist…’
There’s two shocking things about Battle Of The Sexes – one, that these events actually happened and two, how little we’ve actually come in society with regards gender discrimination in sports. ‘These events’ refers to the 1973 tennis match between Billie-Jean King (here played by Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) that was more than a tennis match. It was a standoff of epic proportions, a sociological landmark event that played out on the television screens of at least 90 million people. What three times Wimbledon champion Riggs viewed as a bet, a means to get attention and money became that much more when he set his sights on the wrong person.
Billie-Jean King fought against the inequality within tennis, protested against the fact that female tennis players were treated poorly and paid less than men – along with the fact that the Association of Tennis Players, led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) explained away the difference in pay due to women’s tennis being inferior. A series of events leads to Billie-Jean agreeing to Bobby’s challenge; with 4/5 worth of the 2 hour running time being build up there’s immense pay off during the final section, the actual match.
But the events along the way, in the lives of both Billie-Jean and Bobby, are just as important and just as compelling. Bobby’s refusal to acknowledge his gambling addiction is forcing his marriage to Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) to crumble and the film solidly makes us feel a degree of understanding, if not necessarily sympathy, for his actions in the run-up to establishing the challenge along with the match itself. Carell does a great job in his portrayal of Bobby, entertaining as a man whose public persona proclaimed traditional gender roles yet remained rather pathetically dependent on his wife for every kind of security. Bobby is not a villain and is not demonised by the film, instead his rationale feels more like a product of generation than any desire to discredit the careers of the entire opposite sex.
However, this is Stone’s show. Her Billie-Jean is effervescent, living and breathing beyond the screen. She’s got just as much to lose as Bobby – in this case her feelings towards women which could jeopardise her entire career – but it all-too aware of how much many more would gain from her successes. As a result she’s a blend of resolute resolve, warm generosity and innate inspiration – perfectly pitched as a woman ahead of her times in so many ways. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly her standout sequence isn’t the big face-off with Briggs. Instead it’s a smaller moment much earlier on in the movie. Her first meeting with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) at the salon is a frontrunner contender for most romantic scene of the year. As Marilyn cuts Billie’s hair we see two people discovering each other, intrigued yet wary, drawn yet afraid. Shot with soft, dream-esque lighting, it’s a truly tender and intimate moment.
Whilst the narrative itself may not be all that original in terms of a triumph over adversity story Battle Of The Sexes is elevated from being ‘just another biographical sports movie’ by some terrific performances and carefully-told heart-felt smaller moments.