Film Critic Emma Curzon has her expectations exceeded by new true-story tennis flick Battle of the Sexes
I think I’m justified in shoving a personal angle into this review, because a small part of me has been longing for this movie ever since I was a kid. I remember reading about a tennis player called Billie Jean King, challenged by Bobby Riggs ‘to a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match. He said he wanted to get women ‘back in the house where they belong’. That story- and its ending, which I won’t spoil here- has stayed with me ever since.
Consequently, I’m relieved to say that in this case, the cast and crew of Battle of the Sexes have more than done this iconic event justice. With one exception, every scene was excellently acted and beautifully shot, with music whose creeping sadness or buoyant joie-de-vivre seeps out of the speakers and into your brain. Emma Stone and Steve Carell especially deserve props as the principle protagonist and antagonist: Stone’s Billie Jean is passionate and defiant but marvellously sassy, joining the cast of Hidden Figures as real-life historical women us feminists can shove in our future daughters’ faces. Meanwhile, Carell somehow managed to make possibly film’s most stupid, arrogant, prejudiced douchebag to date, look like a human being- an achievement in itself. Sarah Silverman was caustically hilarious as manager Gladys Heldman, and Natalie Morales and Alan Cumming were both thoroughly enjoyable as Billie’s sassy wing-woman/man Rosie Casals and Ted Tinling. The cast’s biggest unsung heroine, though, was Andrea Riseborough as King’s hairdresser and secret girlfriend (it was the seventies, plus King was married) Marilyn Barnett. The scenes between her and Stone are easily the film’s best. Thankfully their romance is portrayed frankly but respectfully- nothing is fetishized for any hypothetical ‘male gaze’- and their scenes also benefit from the solid directing mentioned earlier, particularly one enchanting, wordless continuous shot in a glass elevator. The film didn’t shy away, either, from the fact that being outed as a lesbian could have ruined King’s career. It’s mostly vocalised through the prissy homophobia of her tennis rival Margaret Court and a couple of touching moments between Billie and the obviously gay Ted.
A good balance was kept between the funny moments- usually with Stone, Silverman or Morales throwing a snappy one-liner- and several instances of nauseating misogyny. Ironically most of these come not from Carell but from Bill Pullman as reporter Jack Kramer. The most excruciating moment is when he smugly tells his viewers that hopefully those silly women will soon stop demanding equal prize money because in every area- sports, business, politics- they’ll just never be as good as the men. Indeed, he was generally more repugnant than Riggs- which is where the film’s problems rear their ugly heads. As said, Carell’s success in humanising Riggs does him credit. There’s nothing wrong with a nuanced antagonist: no one likes a one-note caricature of a villain. The problem is the time the film spends on this. The mark is overstepped by a small but annoyingly significant margin. Yes, the first scenes establishing Riggs’ gambling addiction and crumbling marriage were fairly interesting. But by the third or fourth scene- without Billie Jean to take him down a peg- it was pointless and about as fun as the Prime Minister’s Christmas address.
The second problem was the tennis- or lack thereof. As with Riggs, they just slightly overstepped the line of keeping the focus away from the game itself, to the extent of which it was suddenly the night before the match and you’re left thinking Wow, that went quickly… Billie has been training, right? Because we sure as hell don’t see her doing a lot of training- even though Stone is perfectly capable of showing the pressure getting to Billie just as effectively as a reporter plot-dumping her defaulting on a match. And then there was the match itself. The whole thing was filmed like just another tennis match: focusing on the big picture, an unmoving camera positioned annoyingly far above the players. There were next to no close-ups of their faces, so you’re left none the wiser as to what’s going on in their heads at most points during the match. Even more irritatingly, once it’s all over the camera is right in Stone’s face, and she gives a better performance in a minute than she does in the entirety of La La Land. In summary: more close-up shots, less scenes working through Riggs’ gambling and marital problems, and more scenes of King training, and then- combined with everything else that’s great about this film- we’d really be on to a winner.
Verdict: It has its flaws, but is still a fresh, funny and genuinely inspiring film with excellent directing and performances.