Battle of the Sexes, 2017.
Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton.
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, and Natalie Morales.
The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.
Every now and then a film comes out about the past that is just as socially relevant today as it was then. This year’s Battle of the Sexes is that film as it dives deep into issues that are still prevalent today, especially with what we hear in the news so much lately.
Emma Stone portrays tennis idol and social activist Billie Jean King as she preps for her famous match against Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed the ‘battle of the sexes’ in Kings’ fight for equal pay for female tennis players. Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton direct a compelling, fun and thoughtful film with great performances all round from its cast.
Stone’s portrayal as King is the film’s main draw. She captures the icon’s personality and really delivers the emotion through her performance. She conveys the character’s complexities as King struggled through her sexual identity during this period on top of the stress of beginning her fight for female athletes. Stone also impresses with the role’s physical aspects; though she’s not always the one playing tennis (faraway shots are most likely a double) she shows she’s quite capable of getting fit for a physically demanding role such as this.
One might say that Carell plays his usual, almost slapstick self here as Riggs sensationalizes the upcoming match and leans heavily on the ‘man vs. woman’ debate. While that may be true to an extent, he also imbues a lot of heart into Riggs’ character, giving him some nuance and showing that he’s playing a persona for the crowd (at least to a certain extent). Carell is a nice foil for Stone, though they surprisingly don’t share much screentime together.
The supporting cast play their roles well. Andrea Riseborough shares nice chemistry with Stone as her lover Marilyn. She helps King find her true self and recognize the struggle that is going on within her. It’s easy to believe these two share a connection with each other. Austin Stowell plays King’s husband Larry, but though he too has some good chemistry with Stone, he’s not featured very much in the film. Looking back, this is understandable since King is discovering she’s a lesbian, but you also don’t get as much insight into King’s relationship with Larry because of that and how he eventually accepts her newfound sexuality.
Other prominent supporting roles are Sarah Silverman and Bill Pullman. Silverman plays King’s manager and founder of World Tennis magazine, injecting the film with some more humour that fits with Silverman’s personality. Pullman, meanwhile, is Jack Kramer, another famous tennis player and head of a tennis organization. Kramer is the more serious antagonist of the film. While Riggs is just putting on a show and doing the match primarily for monetary reasons, Kramer is the one advocating against Kings’ beliefs in equality. Pullman’s not entirely sleazy, but gets across the despicable nature of Kramer’s qualities.
The story moves along at a nice pace. It never feels like it’s stalled, or at least not for too long, and the tennis sequences are edited in a fairly exciting manner. I’m not a huge tennis fan, but I could feel the tension and stakes during the matches. The script was also fairly strong, knowing exactly when to inject a joke or make focus on the drama in a scene.
What was also impressive was how it never felt dumbed down, explaining things to the audience. For instance, the scene where Larry discovers Kings’ preferences is done silently between Stone and Stowell. Not a word is said to address the issue, instead relying on their body language to express the awkwardness and hurt the characters feel.
As I said before, the film is very socially relevant. Some may find it beats the audience over the head with its themes, but I think they worked well by mixing its themes with the character development for Billie Jean and Riggs. Stone plays these themes earnestly and its important to be earnest in a film like this, especially with some of the controversies we see today. Overall, Battle of the Sexes delivers on the acting, characters, themes and direction, making it a solid win.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★