Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Austin Stowell, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough, Elisabeth Shue, Alan Cumming, Chip Chinery, Jessica McNamee
Running time: 121mins
What’s the story: In 1973, former men’s number one tennis champ Bobby Riggs challenges current female superstar Billie Jean King to a match broadcast around the world.
What’s the verdict: This tale of women’s rights, fought on the tennis court and in the court of world opinion, is presented in the broad Disney brushstrokes needed for these nuance-free times.
Indeed, Battles of the Sexes (as Billie Jean King’s showdown with Bobby Riggs was titled) can be read as a Disney Princess movie. And not one with the values of 1973, when King faced Riggs in the Houston Astrodome stadium before 30,000 spectators and millions around the globe. Although we would like to see the story told with Robin Hood characters…
No, Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Beaufoy’s script sets its sights on Frozen Disney. With Emma Stone as a driven and charismatic, yet vulnerable and often icy Princess King.
She has good reason for the cold shoulder. The villainous Jack Kramer (Pullman), ruler of the Lawn Tennis Association, sees nothing wrong with paying male players eight times the prize money he awards women. Then banishes the female players from the Land of LTA altogether when King and co. form the Women’s Tennis Association.
However, King has a fairy godmother in the form of co-WTA founder and promoter Gladys Heldman (Silverman). Gladys scores the ladies promotion courtesy of Virginia Slims cigarettes (there’s some fire breathing, but no dragons).
Her Prince Charming is husband Larry (Stowell), King’s husband and also instrumental in the foundation of women’s tennis tours. Larry’s aware of his place in King firmament and why his wife is so friendly with lowly hairdresser Marilyn (Riseborough).
Above all else, her true love is Tennis. And retired triple time champion Bobby Riggs (Carell), craving the limelight once more, plans to abscond with it. A clown who wants to “put the show in chauvinism”, Bobby’s more about self-promotion than dumping on Women’s Lib.
But, Kramer and his cronies spy treasure if Bobby defeats Billie Jean. The riches of putting women firmly in their place.
Okay, we’ve laboured the metaphor, but it works. There’s even the equivalent of Beauty and the Beast’s clock and candlestick holders in Alan Cumming and Chip Chinery’s tailors, who provide King with her superhero garb of the star-bannered tennis skirt. And a wicked step-sister in the form of aptly-named rival, Margaret Court (MacNamee).
Plus, Battles of the Sexes could never be accused of subtlety. Before a particularly erotic haircut, Marilyn breathes, “So Billie-Jean, what do you want…?” Jack’s declarative dialogue is typified by, “At the top it’s a man’s game”.
Yet, as with directors Dayton and Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, look though the flaws to the puppy-charm and good head & heartedness.
Yes, it’s down the centre line clear in its message that sexism sucks, homophobia sucks and a job well done deserves equal pay. But crucially, the film avoids casting King and Riggs as browbeaten victim and charlatan. Stone doesn’t have too much heavy lifting, but is magnetic throughout. Even if, as a character, Billie Jean isn’t sufficiently developed to see her win a second consecutive Best Actress Oscar.
For his part Carell avoids playing Riggs as an ogre. He’s an egotistical clown not above teaching a Gambler’s Anonymous class how to gamble well. Yet, The Office star plays him as Little Boy Lost suddenly back in the big leagues (and has more fun here than in pro-wrestling film Foxcatcher).
And Larry and Bobby’s long-suffering wife Priscilla (Shue) are afforded scenes that allow them dignity despite the hardships unwittingly foisted on them by their myopically focussed partners.
Dayton and Faris (assisted by La La Land DoP Linus Sandgren) employ telephoto lenses and diffuse magic hour photography to convey the feel of a 70s movie. Nifty FX work performs seamless face replacement to convince us the actors are pulling off feats of racquet dexterity.
It may not take home any trophies, but Battle of the Sexes is hard not to love.