The famous match between 55 year old former Men’s World Number 1 Bobby Riggs and the then Female World Number 1 Billie Jean King has gone down in tennis history as an iconic moment in the sport, and ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is the story of that match. Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (helmers of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’), this is a film that goes behind the headlines and gets to know more about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and what it was that motivated and led them to take on this match. Emma Stone and Steve Carell portray King and Riggs respectively, and both do a great job (I really loved Carell in this role), with the film splitting much of its time between both characters.
The film is about the movement for equal rights and equal pay in women’s tennis and to a certain extent the match with Riggs acts as a microcosm for this movement as a whole. King is at the forefront of that movement and the first time we see her she is leading the charge to start the WTA on the back of decisions made by the men in charge at the LTA that will see the male players receive eight times more prize money. It’s an argument that still raises its head in modern tennis so the origins of the dispute are interesting to see, and it’s well played by Stone and Bill Pullman, who plays former player and promoter Jack Kramer as a real bastard. The Riggs material is generally lighter as there’s less at stake for him, albeit his problems with gambling and the effect this has on his family are explored. He’s portrayed less as a chauvinist and more as an opportunist, a man who saw an opportunity to make a quick buck, and if he could do that whilst reinforcing his perceived superior ability he was all for it.
There are a few too many subplots incorporated and I never felt ‘Battle of the Sexes’ managed to effectively display King’s struggle with her sexuality, largely shown through a relationship with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). I also felt the tennis re-enactment scenes were disappointingly shot and directed, especially on the back of the superbly done culmination of ‘Borg vs McEnroe’ from earlier this year. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is an entertaining movie about the iconic King vs Riggs match and it’s a showcase for Stone and Carell’s strong performances, but it’s undoubtedly more successful when it takes a comedic slant on things, and less so when it tries to reach for drama to make a wider point about the movement for equal pay.
Directed By: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell and Natalie Morales