BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
Runtime: 121 mins.
Australian release date: 28 September 2017
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 15 September 2017.
It appears not much has changed since 1973 when considering the disparity between male and female wages for the same work. In the eyes of Bobby Rigg (Steve Carell), ex-men’s champion tennis player and all-round hustler, women did not have the strength and versatility on the court that men did and so he, along with many others at the time (mainly men), couldn’t see that there was a case to answer regarding equal tournament purses for women’s tennis. So sure was he of men’s superiority that, at the age of 55 and long into retirement, he proposed a match with the reigning women’s champ Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). History records that his challenge spectacularly back-fired and it’s this fascinating story that we see unfold in Battle Of The Sexes. It’s matter-of-factly directed by husband-and-wife Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the couple that brought us the sublime Little Miss Sunshine in 2006.
That the game would be watched by over 90 million people around the world and had a $100,000 prize was only the tip of the iceberg of this global event. Behind the scenes things were just as interesting: Riggs was an obsessive gambler and he badly needed the prizemoney but his marriage was suffering because of his habit; King, on the other hand, was in a happy if rather passionless heterosexual marriage but becoming increasingly besotted by her female hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Eight years after the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ she was ‘outed’ in a palimony lawsuit, at a time when discussion about homosexuality was not seen as acceptable. It cost her dearly.
It is worth noting that although Riggs was a lot older than King (she was 29), he was convinced of his dominance simply because he was a man, and his ‘maleness’ would guarantee his success on the day. For King the stakes were even higher; she knew that if she lost it would spell absolute disaster for women’s rights on the court in the future. Riggs had already challenged, and easily beaten, Aussie champion Margaret Court (a small, but significant role by Packed to the Rafters actress Jessica McNamee), and this had only added fuel to Riggs’ boasting and bravado. It reinforced his already biased opinion about gender stereotypes.
Both Carell and Stone are terrific as the duo that goes out on a limb for very different reasons. The back-story is as compelling as the match on court and the leads are ably supported by a cast who are very much part of the battle. Fabulous performances by Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, the head of a breakaway women’s tennis competition, and Alan Cumming as ‘Ted’ Tinling, one half of a duo of gay dress-designers who offer support to King, provides a respite from the mostly chauvinistic atmosphere that prevails. Riseborough is also very good as the enigmatic Barnett.
Jonathan Dayton has stated, “It was the most challenging project of our careers. It is at once a sports movie, a love story, a socio-political drama, and at times a comedy. Forty-four years after the ‘Battle,’ the same issues are clearly still being debated. We were struck by how this circus-like event became a place where important social issues were played out.” Adds Faris, “This match felt like a precursor to the way politics are working in our country today, how the debate is so often reduced to a game or entertainment.” The same could also be said of politics in Australia. Ultimately though, the take-away from Battle Of The Sexes is stated in the film’s tag line, ‘He made a bet. She made history’. Women’s tennis would never be the same again.