Battle of the Sexes (2017)

228 The Battle of the Sexes

Unless you are a baby boomer, chances are you know very little about the feminist milestone that attracted one of the biggest audiences in the history of sport. In September 1973, 90 million people around the world watched a 55-year old former men’s tennis champion take on the 29-year old No 2 ranked women’s champion in a $100,000 winner-take-all tournament. The dramedy bio-pic Battle of the Sexes (2017) tells the story of a repressive era when women were routinely put down and lesbian was a dirty word.

Chronic hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrel) had seen better days but was still active on the men’s senior tennis circuit. At the time, professional sport was a man’s world and Riggs was a professional loudmouth and self-promoter who publicly ridiculed women’s tennis. He stumbled onto an idea to challenge any woman player to a match, and then soundly defeated the world’s Number 1, Margaret Court. With an over-sized ego, he hiked up the prizemoney and world Number 2, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), accepted the challenge. Sport, politics and crooked money was part of the scene, but the public only saw and got excited about the symbolism of gender war. They were oblivious to Billy Jean King’s struggle with her sexuality and the pressures of keeping it from her husband and the world. The match would make King a queen of her times.

This is a wonderful story, told with the right mix of irony, humour and pathos. It captures the mood of the 70s with all the fashion trimmings, the mood for change, and the fears of men as they saw patriarchal power sinking under the tide of the feminist movement. The dramatic tension rises steadily as the narrative moves towards the final battle, with the softer story of King’s love life interwoven but never intruding into the bigger picture. Steve Carrell’s portrayal of Riggs captures the obnoxious claims of masculine superiority that were trumpeted in the 70s, but he is unconvincing as an athlete who can play against someone half his age. On the other hand, Emma Stone is simply brilliant. She embodies the deep inner doubts of someone who has risen beyond her own expectations while dealing with the inner turmoil of discovering her attraction towards women. The filming style uses the handheld effect judiciously, and there are several macro close-ups of Stone and her hairdresser lover that are beautiful. While she plays King with nerdy understatement, she also shows steel resolve in taking on the male establishment in the interests of sportswomen everywhere.

Billy Jean King’s achievement in raising the status of women’s professional sport deserves to be enshrined in the annals of feminism, as well as sport and cinema history. It was 43 years ago and many today will look at the story as a distant time-capsule of male chauvinist history. But of course, we know it’s not over. The uncouth masculinity represented by Riggs still exists, even in high places, but is now called ‘boys’ locker room talk’. Battle of the Sexes is both an entertaining and an insightful portrait of an unfinished war.

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Directors:  Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carrel, Andrea Riseborough

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