Battle of the Sexes

Published on October 10th, 2017

Battle of the Sexes

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, and Elisabeth Shue

Reviewed by Michael Dalton

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I was only eight years old when tennis champion Billie Jean King took on former tennis champion and eventual court clown Bobby Riggs at Houston Astrodome in 1973 for a $100,000 purse and, ultimately, gender equality on tennis courts around the world. I remember nothing of that historical match but I have no doubt my mother would’ve cheered her on. What I do remember in the years that followed was seeing King sweat it out in stadiums around the world; I could see she was a dynamo, a true athlete of the highest calibre.

I deliberately avoided any interviews or footage of King in the hope that Stone, a deserving Oscar winner for her work last year in the twee La La Land, might show me who she was, and more importantly, how she was, in the new film, Battle of the Sexes. She certainly showed me who she was. Intensely private and dedicated, she loved the game with a passion. During the timeline of this movie, the married King has a quiet affair with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), battles with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the chauvinistic executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals, for equality (equal prize money), and ultimately triumphs over Riggs. What Stone fails to do here is show us how King was. The unflattering helmet like haircut and round glasses are on point but, in her first biographical role, Stone fails to shade the character, a legend yet, beyond looks of intense concentration on the court. All roads here lead to that thrilling victory and boy do directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris set us up to cheer (this is the gung ho film for the year) but you won’t leave feeling any more familiar with the heroine. Stone’s work should’ve provided the balance but the fault doesn’t just lie with her performance. The character, as written, is too closed off, privately and meekly battling demons. King may well have been an enigma but as opposed to her gamesmanship, cinematically, she doesn’t play.

The hero however, played to the absolute hilt by Steve Carell, owns the film. Riggs was a showman. A gambling addict, a child at heart, and comically cocky (the role is tailor made for Carell’s tomfoolery), Riggs thought nothing of posing nude or dressing up like a chicken for a photo opportunity. His wife Priscilla (a sensational turn by Elisabeth Shue) was fed up with him yet Riggs, passionately in love with the limelight, recognises too late the scattered pieces that were once his marriage. Curiously, there is infinitely more detail in this opposing faction of the business at hand. It’s where the fun is, and where the film finds its pulse. I couldn’t wait to return to his adventures and see what lunatic act he’d perform next. He holds the movie up under the lumbering direction and often cringe-inducing dialogue. Consider King’s sportswear designer, played by Allan Cumming (who should know better than to deliver a queer character as deafeningly shrill as this one) Comforting her during an overwhelming moment, he tells her, “Times are changing Billie Jean. You should know. You just changed them”.  Aw shucks!!