Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Billie Jean King is far more than just a sporting hero. This film uses one of the most famous exhibition tennis matches to tell what many consider the most fascinating professional chapter of her life. With some excellent colour grading, costumes and casting, Battle of the Sexes captures the tone of the 1970s perfectly and brings to light some of the socio-political issues of the era.
The battle begins as a staggering pay gap between the prize money for men’s and women’s tennis tournaments is revealed, contextualising the attitudes of the men of the Lawn Tennis Association, who believe women are simply less exciting to watch (despite selling the same amount of tickets). This is the catalyst for the fight that Billie Jean King and her fellow tennis players – the Houston Nine – admirably put up to even the playing field.
In order to be taken seriously, they sacrifice any existing advantages they have as the best professional players in the LTA and embark on their own tour, publically announcing their one dollar contracts as arranged by Gladys Heldman (played wonderfully by Sarah Silverman) – their biggest advocate, manager and all-round marvelous woman. As all this is taking off, below the surface Bobby Riggs is bubbling like a buffoon; he’s an outspoken loudmouth, who also happens to be a terrible husband and gambling addict. He openly acknowledges and spreads his sexist beliefs and uses them to push his own agendas as well as promote the matches he instigates for yet more self-promotion. Worse, his hubris is embraced and indulged by the majority of people around him.
Curiously, at times, Riggs is undeservedly portrayed with a slither of pity, which even veers into sympathy in the final act. Perhaps the audience are supposed to reserve their anger for Jack Kramer, a slier misogynist, who quietly tries to cripple the women’s plight through blackmail and other underhand methods.
The amount of time that women are belittled or underestimated on the basis of their gender in this film is frustrating to say the least. However, directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris counter this abhorrence by placing a sisterhood at the centre of the narrative. The tennis players, along with Gladys and other fellow 'libbers', set a superb example of what solidarity can do to combat derogatory ideals and regressive attitudes - they use their voices powerfully and positively.
Billie Jean King, despite being the top female tennis player, does not once demonstrate an inch of the egotism one might expect from a sports star. On the contrary, Emma Stone portrays the complexities of King’s psyche as she battles to bury personal revelations, as well as displaying a witty, fighting spirit during press events. She deals with parental and marital pressure as well as managing self-doubt and failure. No matter who she is speaking to – even if she knows (and we as an audience know) they don’t respect her – she speaks to them with just the right amount of force, all the while remaining articulate and impassioned as a spokesperson for equality.
Emma Stone expertly conveys BJK’s balance and composure. In the scenes where she sits alone without the media circus or anyone else surrounding her, the glasses come off and, as she truly lets her guard down, we see what is close to vulnerability, but feels more like a raw release of the pressure and restraint she withholds. Steve Carell plays the self-aggrandising 'hustler' has-been well too, ensuring he uses his comedic temperament so that the audience are laughing at him rather than with him.
While Riggs is in shot, he is always sprouting some phony fighting-talk or gimmick, wearing outfits that are garish and attention seeking. King, however, is often captured in side-on shots in warm, naturalistic lighting, often making no sound at all while she takes the time to reflect. Her introversion is a welcome change from the commotion surrounding the event that the whole world was watching, but there is an additional sub-text too, implying that she still feels the need to remain silent, at least for the time being, about her repressed sexuality.
It makes sense that the central thread of this film is the tennis match referred to in the title. Dayton and Faris use the physical 'battle' to do several things: firstly, to build to a thrilling climactic event; secondly, to establish the audacity of a man who already had his fair share of the limelight, but plays with his status as a famous, rich man to undermine women and their role in society. More interestingly, it looks through a nostalgic, more open-minded lens to enable us to understand the sociological and political battle - what it meant to be marginalised in the 1970s. This film celebrates just how much of a trail Billie Jean King blazed by bringing the right sort of attention to women's sports, and ultimately encourages us to question how much change is still needed today.
Verdict: What’s worse than a chauvinist pig? A proud chauvinist pig whose sexism is celebrated. As its title may suggest, The Battle of the Sexes is a film as much about tennis as it is about the fight for gender equality.