The stark disparity in prizemoney levels and the general public’s perception of the worth of sportswomen finally began to be addressed in the early 70’s. But it took the trailblazing efforts of one determined athlete, tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), to turn the tide, outraged by the divide between females and their male counterparts. But what she encountered was a sturdy brick wall of masculine derision when suggesting something more equitable to tournament organisers. Radical change was required and so, banding with a staunch group of like-minded female players, and led by promoter and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), they formed a breakaway group of renegades, determined to establish a new tour for women with benefits and rewards decided on their own terms.
Amidst this tumult and the waves it created in stirring up the male-centric establishment, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s new film, Battle of the Sexes (2017), also offers insight into the personal story and, in particular, sexual awakening of King. Despite being married to Larry (Austin Stowell), she began to experience something different, especially after the intimate, hands-on attentions of hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Such ‘morally dubious’ inclinations threatened to derail King’s credibility and she worked hard at maintaining the façade of her marriage despite everyone on tour quickly sensing that the suddenly constant lingering presence of Marilyn had deeper implications.
Battle of the Sexes is also the story of former champion and Hall-of-Famer Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) who, at 55, and making peanuts on the Seniors tour, longs for another taste of the spotlight. He’s a figure of some tragedy, seemingly determined to curate a perception of himself as a buffoon, a self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” gently provoking opinion but mostly in the service of showmanship. Meanwhile, his marriage is teetering on the edge of a precipice. Wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) has reached a point of no longer being able to reconcile her long-term life ambitions with those of a man who she essentially loves but can no longer abide for his incessant man-child act or self-destructive ways. Carell revels in the role but at times you can’t feeling that he hijacks the character of Riggs, becoming nothing more than another annoying version of himself, only in funny glasses and a bad haircut.
The film’s most anticipated set piece, the showdown on the court between King and Riggs is authentically recreated. Every angle and politely contained rally is captured with a keen eye gazing back through the lens of time at this distinctive era. The event captured the nation’s attention, semi-serious battle lines over gender and equality drawn. In a sense Riggs is a pawn for the cause of masculine dominance and an ingrained prejudice that hoped to keep female expectations of worth suppressed. Riggs himself had little interest in the ‘issues’ beyond a generalised public stand that pitted him, comically, against ‘the other side’ and stereotypes associated with both. For Riggs, this was more about personal exposure, stirring the pot and making money to cover and fund his ever-spiralling gambling addiction. Inspired by Riggs and his ‘free-for-all’ attitude to generating maximum exposure, the organisers ran wild with the concept Riggs. The whole thing, subsequently, became – quite literally in many senses – a rollicking circus with a colourful cavalcade of pre-match ‘entertainment’ more befitting something usually seen on the midway.
Composer Nicholas Britell, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for his work on Moonlight (2016), has again composed a first-rate work that uses a triumphant main theme to sustain some lengthy sequences. Especially brilliant is the way he scores the ebb and flow of the King/Riggs showdown. The contribution of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy – an Oscar winner for his Slumdog Millionaire (2008) adaptation – is notable also; he does a very decent job of balancing the film’s serious themes with more light-hearted moments. Even if he’s only skimming the surface to ensure this exists as a slick, palatably mainstream recreation of events, there are scenes that do resonate with emotional truth, including contrasting post-match reflections that are affectingly bittersweet in their conclusions. King remains an important figure today, not only in terms of sporting achievement, but for her ground-breaking work in expanded the consciousness of women and redefining their rightful yearning for an equal playing field and equal reward.