Film review: Battle of the Sexes

David Gritten / 22 November 2017

You don’t need to be a tennis fan to enjoy Battle of the Sexes, a pivotal moment in Billie Jean King’s life and career, says Saga critic David Gritten.



I enjoy watching tennis a lot, and in most recent summers I’ve felt privileged to spend a day watching the action on one or other of Wimbledon’s two biggest courts. But something seems to happen to tennis the minute someone tries to make a film around it; somehow its charm and appeal fails to carry to the big screen.

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The recent Borg vs. McEnroe was a big ‘so what?’ and the public voted with their feet, staying away in droves. The British film Wimbledon was unbearably twee, a saccharine rom-com Richard Curtis would have rejected at first glance. Match Point? It’s arguably the worst film in Woody Allen’s long career.

Battle of the Sexes, the new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, creators of the enduringly delightful Little Miss Sunshine, is a cut above all of those titles. It’s about tennis – indeed it features a long, tense match close to its climax – but it’s also about something rather more.

It revisits the most infamous grudge match in tennis history, in 1973, between Billie Jean King, then close to the height of her powers, and Bobby Riggs, the clownish male chauvinist star of the veterans’ circuit, who arrogantly challenges her to a big-money contest to prove that at age 55 he’s still better than any woman player in the world.

Emma Stone, still in the ascendant after her success in La-La Land, doesn’t look much like Billie Jean – but with the glasses and the hair, she’s very believable. King was going through a tough patch in her life – squabbling with the US Tennis Association for equal pay for women players, her marriage to tennis promote Larry King heading for the rocks, and finding herself attracted to other women.

Riggs is played by the gifted Steve Carell, who knows how to maximise the comedy in a given scene, but also has the skill to elicit sympathy for his off-putting character. Underneath his extrovert antics (he managed to turn any tennis in which he was involved into a circus sideshow) his Riggs regards himself a failure, especially in the eyes of his wife Priscilla, subtly played by Elisabeth Shue, an actress we see too little of these days.

The story progresses towards the big match, with lots of period detail en route. Most of the male characters are bigoted towards women, their aspirations and their bid for equality. Disappointingly, when Billie Jean finds herself a female companion, a (presumably fictional) hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), she comes across as irredeemably dull.

The film, then, has its faults, and its British screenwriter Simon Beaufoy keeps it all on an even keel; no character seems to lose their temper or even their composure, when the blatant hostility behind Riggs suggesting such a match must have been maddening.

Yet it has one thing going for it. These days, what with all the shenanigans and accusations levelled towards one particular Hollywood producer, the film’s chosen topic of gender politics feels very much of the moment. This may be damning it with faint praise, but for a tennis movie, Battle of the Sexes is not at all bad.

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