Not quite a smash …..
This was the tennis match that hit the headlines in 1973 – no Grand Slam final, but an exhibition match in Atlantic City. And it was the two players who made it newsworthy: world number one on the women’s tour, Billie Jean King, and one-time champion, now hustling businessman, Bobby Riggs. For him, it was a way of making some much-needed money. For her, it meant a whole lot more.
The press dubbed it The Battle Of The Sexes, although King (Emma Stone) wasn’t the first top women’s player to face Riggs (Steve Carell) across the net. He’d already beaten the formidable Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) so the result against King, he assumed, would be a foregone conclusion.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris carefully tread a complex tightrope of bio-pic, drama and comedy and occasionally lose their footing. Inevitably, Riggs v King is the main event, the impact of his match against Court is there as well. More importantly, they focus on the issues behind the match – equal pay for women players and Billie Jean King’s personal turmoil. She was already married to Larry King (Austin Stowell) but meeting hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) forced her to confront and accept her own sexuality. She was the driving force in setting up a separate tour for women when head of the circuit Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) refused to budge on the matter of equal pay.
There are times when the directors and their screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, are too black and white in their approach. Kramer and Court are such obvious villains, they should be wearing black stetsons. Kramer for his smoothly patronising attitude to women players, Court for her obvious disgust when the rumours start to surface about Billie Jean’s private life. It over-simplifies what are actually serious – and, sadly, contemporary – issues which are worthy of a more considered approach. The final line about being free and loving who you want to love feels like a clumsy last minute add-on.
The humour doesn’t always sit comfortably with the rest of the film, for much the same reasons. But when it comes from Carell spouting Riggs’s outdated attitudes, it’s genuinely funny, if only because it’s so crass. His private life comes under the spotlight as well and it’s laden with irony. For all his public chauvinism, he’s privately bankrolled by his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who also adores him – but finds she can’t live with him. Carell is the smart choice for Riggs – showy, opportunist but likeable – proof of his ever-expanding range as an actor. Stone is also strong as BJK, although the player’s trademark on-court aggression isn’t always on display. There’s also a seriously eye-catching performance from Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn, whose scenes with Stone are tender and convincing and made all the more sad by the reality of their eventual break-up some 12 years later.
Tennis movies don’t come along very often, yet Battle Of The Sexes is the second one in less than three months. The other, of course, was Borg V McEnroe, a more arthouse approach to the sport. With its A list leads, humour and topicality, Battle Of The Sexes is the crowd pleaser of the two, one that entertains and amuses, but never gives its issues quite the gravitas they deserve.
Watch our exclusive interview with Elisabeth Shue here.
Battle Of The Sexes is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 24 November.