Director: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Jessica McNamee.
|"Winner gets Ryan Gosling."|
But the title refers to more than just the showdown between women's tennis champ Billie Jean King (Stone) and retired player/self-styled "male chauvinist" Bobby Riggs, and it's this extra layer that helps make this sports drama so much more engrossing than just a sports drama.
The story is told largely through King's eyes, starting with her and tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Silverman) forming the breakaway Virginia Slims women's tennis tour in protest against Jack Kramer (Pullman), a typically misogynist tournament organiser who refuses to up the prize money for women to a more equitable rate.
During the Virginia Slims tour, King falls in love with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough), loses a big game and the #1 ranking to Margaret Court (McNamee), and is approached by Riggs to play in a battle of the sexes tennis match - an offer King turns down.
Riggs instead throws down the gauntlet to Court, who accepts the deal and is comprehensively defeated by her male opponent in a match dubbed the Mother's Day Massacre. After that, King decides she has to step up and beat Riggs to prove a point on behalf of womankind.
Dayton and Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) give the film documentary-ish look, which works perfectly, especially for the big finale and its incorporation of real footage from the broadcast. There's a subtle Polaroid look to the whole thing too, matched by the exquisite production design, costumes, and soundtrack.
What's most surprising about the film is there is so little tennis through-out. Much of what we see of the Mother's Day Massacre is through a television and is more about the reactions of the other female tennis stars, while otherwise the sport is used sparingly. It's a smart move as it means we're not tired of watching tennis by the grand finale - in fact, we're desperate for it, making the eponymous showdown the equivalent of a dam bursting.
But, as mentioned, the battle is about more than just tennis. It's about King dealing with her flowering homosexuality and the conundrum it creates for herself, her husband Larry (Stowell), and her lover. It also relates to Riggs and the issues he has with his wife, who has had enough of his gambling. And it's also about the broader gender war and the line in the sand King was trying to draw with a tennis match.
It would have been easy to make Riggs the villain in all this but the film has loftier goals. Riggs is portrayed by Carell and Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's script as a goofy prankster who doesn't really believe what he's saying, but rather who is just in it for the fame, the thrill and the quick buck. Instead the film targets Pullman's Jack Kramer as the big bad, and Margaret Court as a lesser evil, with the former representing a women-are-inferior stance while the latter sneers at the "sin" of King's lesbianism (some thing's never change, eh Margaret?). Both characters are representative of the old ways of thinking and make for excellent hissable villains.
Stone is flawless and brilliant in the lead, making King stoic, determined, powerful, fragile, flawed, but above all real. Carrell is great too, his charisma adding a lovable goofiness to Riggs. Cumming is also great in a tiny role as King's fairy godfather of sorts, famed tennis dress designer Ted Tinling.
Battle Of The Sexes is an important re-stating of an important moment in sport, and its subject matter is as pertinent now as it was then, perhaps even more so. In fact, it's depressing to walk out of the cinema and back into the real world and realise how much more progress is needed in LGBTQ rights and gender equality.
If there's a flaw to the film, it's an occasional hint of melodrama and a biopic-typical tendency towards things fitting together too perfectly, but that's being picky. Battle Of The Sexes is interesting, important, enjoyable and serves up an ace of a story.
Damn. I almost got all the way throug this review without a single tennis pun.