Battle of the Sexes

 

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Emma Stone is Billie Jean King and Steve Carell is Bobby Riggs in a gripping recreation of 

one of sporting world’s most dramatic showdowns.

 

Battle of the Sexes
Gender knock-up: Steve Carell and Emma Stone

 

In his own words, Bobby Riggs put the “show” into “chauvinism.” He also declared on national television that, “I love women – in the bedroom and the kitchen.” But he was not just a bigot; he was a hustler, a compulsive liar, an extravagant self-publicist, a member of Gamblers Anonymous, a pill popper and a brilliant tennis player. And he had a lot to brag about – for starters, he won Wimbledon at the age of 21. However, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes is really the story of Billie Jean King, herself no mean combatant on the tennis court – she won 39 Grand Slam titles and was founder of the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation. But she was also a member of the weaker sex and in 1972 she boycotted the Lawn Tennis Association in protest of female players’ pay being just an eighth of men’s, in spite of the fact that their matches sold as many tickets.

 

In the media, Billie Jean King came off as a somewhat aloof, strident and aggressive figure. Yet, if this film is to be believed, she was actually a vulnerable, conflicted and passionate woman, qualities beautifully captured by Emma Stone in yet another grandstanding performance. Not only is the Oscar-winning actress uncannily transformed into the physical likeness of Billie Jean, but she brings a human complexity to a woman who was fighting so many parallel personal wars. As she risked everything in the cause of equal pay for her professional sisterhood, she was also coming to terms with her growing attraction for her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while struggling to keep her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) on an even keel. Then Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) turns up and invites her to try to beat him on the court, observing that “men are the superior animal.” It’s a challenge – a battle – that she cannot afford to walk away from. In the end, Billie Jean King achieved as much for women’s liberation as the Pankhursts, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Cleopatra.

 

By juggling so many heady and dramatic elements, Battle of the Sexes proves to be an engrossing pleasure, proficiently crafted by the English scenarist Simon Beaufoy, whose previous credits include The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire. But it’s Emma Stone who holds the emotional reins, proving yet again that she is one of the finest actresses of her generation. She also has some admirable support, particularly from the distaff side: Andrea Riseborough as Billie Jean’s understanding soul mate Marilyn, Sarah Silverman as Billy Jean’s gutsy promoter Gladys Heldman and Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ decorous, long-suffering wife Priscilla. As Riggs, Steve Carell turns in another colourful supporting turn, although it’s hard to believe that this pathetic, middle-aged buffoon could have defeated a World No. 1. Nonetheless, the film itself is an eye-opening, gripping and intensely moving depiction of a fascinating slice of sporting history.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Fred Armisen, Jessica McNamee, John C. McGinley, Lewis Pullman, Jamey Sheridan, Matt Malloy.

 

Dir Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, Pro Christian Colson, Danny Boyle and Robert Graf, Screenplay Simon Beaufoy, Ph Linus Sandgren, Pro Des Judy Becker, Ed Pamela Martin, Music Nicholas Britell, Costumes Mary Zophres.

 

Decibel Films/Cloud Eight Films-20th Century Fox.

121 mins. USA/UK. 2017. Rel: 24 November 2017. Cert. 12A.