'Battle' A Grand Slam

Battle of the Sexes
(USA, 121 min.)
Dir. Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton, Writ. Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Austin Stowell
Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Battle of the Sexes
Melinda Sue Gordon / Fox Searchlight Pictures
It’s only a year after the mother of all showdowns in the battle of the sexes, but long before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump threw mud on prime time television, a sportier grudge match hit the airwaves. It’s hard not to see the 1973 showdown between tennis champs Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs as a well-timed parable for Hillary and the Donald lobbing backhanded zingers in a rally between progressive sensibility and male chauvinism. Thankfully, the tennis match had a better outcome than the election did, but one can’t overlook how little things have changed in the 44 years since the game played on the court.

Battle of the Sexes dramatizes the showdown between King and Riggs with a timely sense of humour. The film stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell as the two tennis players and both actors give progressively minded performances that invest the grudge match in the stakes at hand. On one side of the court, Billie Jean King plays for equality: equal pay for women and men tennis players, but also a fair share of respect between the sexes. On the other side of the court is Riggs, who playfully embodies the status quo with the same kind of self-aggrandizing showmanship that Trump used to make his campaign white supremacy’s last stand. One could draw more likenesses between the spunky determination of Stone’s performance and the goofy cartoonishness of Carell’s shtick as further parallels between the recent battles of the sexes.

The film gives far more airtime to Stone’s King and thankfully so since Carell’s manic turn might be overkill in a larger role. Battle of the Sexes doesn’t offer an even playing field and it doesn’t need to give equal airtime: Riggs’ arrogance isn’t worth one’s sympathy, but he’s a fun foil for King in her earnest effort to prove that women can play just as well as any man—if not better. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) lets the winner write the history book and rightfully so.

King’s story gives Emma Stone a juicy role to inhabit. Stone more than capably follows her Oscar winning performance in La La Land with a dramatic turn that could very well bring her another nomination. Stone’s plucky Billie Jean King a carries a fight that the actress and others in her field still wage today as they strive for equal pay and respect on film sets. (Just read NOW’s chat with Sarah Polly.) The film begins with King netting a landmark $100,000 payday for a woman tennis player, only to learn that the next big tournament offers the ladies a purse that equals one-eighth of the prize money the winner of the men’s will receive. The excuse? Men are more exciting to watch. Clearly, the guys running the tennis racket, gleefully embodied by Bill Pullman as former pro and commentator Jack Kramer, are members of the old boys club.

Carell has a lot of fun playing the caricature of boorish Bobby Riggs. Loud and obnoxious, his chauvinistic pig knows how to play up a persona for the media. He’s a self-made celebrity, while King is a reluctant star. The role isn’t much of a stretch from other loudmouths that Carell has played, but Riggs is one of his funnier turns.

Battle of the Sexes develops the differences between the opponents as they face their own personal struggles leading up to the big game. Riggs flagrantly disregards the pleas of his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), to seek treatment for his gambling addiction. His love for showboating and his insatiable appetite for winning put his marriage and family in the kitty. This risk is all part of the alpha-male machismo that Riggs playfully inhabits in his desire to mop the court with King and prove that women are better suited to serving dinner, rather than tennis balls.

King, on the other hand, finds an unexpected jolt—the kind of passion she only experienced before on the tennis court—while getting her hair done by a flirtatious stylist named Marilyn Burnett (Andrea Riseborough). Billie Jean and Marilyn kick off their heels and the tennis player discovers newfound passion. King struggles with these new feelings and desires, particularly in terms of how they conflict with her marriage to supportive Ken Doll Larry King (Austin Stowell) and the wholesome image she needs maintain to stay in the league’s good graces. These conflicting emotions aren’t weights that Kings needs on the court and her game backslides in the days leading up to the showdown with Riggs.

While the rivalry between King and Riggs is the selling point of Battle of the Sexes, the heart of the film beats in the warm closeted relationship between Billie Jean and Marilyn. Riseborough is a magnetic screen presence and it’s hard not to fall in love with Marilyn as she plays the selfless buoy for King. One fight for equality doesn’t bring another though and in Billie Jean’s sadly denied romance with Marilyn, the film resonates by finding another battle that’s only now getting its time on court.

Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) find the right tone to keep Battle of the Sexes brisk on its feet and the ball constantly in motion as various stakes arise in the fight for equality. Driven by two very different performances that help up the ante without making light of the ongoing battles for equality, the film draws equally strong support from the ensemble with Riseborough’s Marilyn and a Sarah Silverman’s scene-stealing turn as a chain-smoking dryly-humoured manager offering additional highlights against Carell’s chauvinist foil. This timely crowd pleaser hits a grand slam as it draws the audience into the rivalry between the tennis players and finds the greater match at hand.

Battle of the Sexes is now playing in theatres.