Battle of the Sexes

Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

These last few years there’s been a wave of indignation at the way both women’s sport and female athletes perpetually take second place to their male equivalents, rising to a head in the UK when in 2017 not one woman was shortlisted for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (and only 13 out of the 60-odd winners have been women). But how much worse would it be now if it were not for Billie Jean King and her colleagues of the Women’s Tennis Association over 40 years ago? Things were then not just bad but getting worse, and by 1970, prize money for women’s championships compared to men’s stood at an average of less than 1:5. Despite its rising levels of popularity among the public, it was still seen as very much a sideshow of lesser talent by the smug men in suits who held the power.

The film takes up the story in the heady days of the early 70s as women were striking out for equality in many walks of life, when King (Emma Stone) and several other leading women players say enough is enough and push for better deals by forming the WTA and creating their own circuit, the Virgina Slims, financed in part by magazine publisher and sympathiser Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Bill Pulman plays Jack Kramer, revered ex-champ and chairman of the Lawn Tennis Association, a staunchly old-fashioned paternalistic ol’boy who denies that women’s tennis can ever be the equivalent of men’s in excitement or skill. But if you create it, they will come, and the Virginia Slims soon becomes a hit.

Step up Bobby Riggs, former champ and now tennis hustler and (mostly unsuccessful) gambler, played by Steve Carell, who is fast-becoming one of Hollywood’s most impressive character actors. With an eye always on the main chance, affable Bobby is foolish but no sexist monster. He spots the showbizzy possibilities and gambling potential inherent in the situation and proposes a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ between himself and a female player. Carell’s ability to illicit our sympathy while at the same time we delight in his comeuppance is just one example of the film’s refusal to vilify in an easy way. (Kramer alone is practically without redeeming features, whose uncomfortable realisation that he’s backed the wrong horse is an undiluted pleasure.)

But it isn’t just about work equality. King, married to all round nice guy Larry (Austin Stowell), begins to admit to herself that her sexuality lies elsewhere, and begins a relationship with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, her elvish little face gazing out cute-as-steel from a sea of flyaway 70s hair). Though this particular battle for public hearts and minds is to take longer to win.

Shot in glossy 70s style, the film perfectly captures both the energy and the yuckiness of the times, eye-popping primary colours along with that beige which those of us who were there remember so well. The naffness of the showbiz style surrounding the ‘battle’, with King emerging onto the court Cleopatra-style borne by bare-chested hunks, all too accurately conveys how far the serious sportswoman was prepared to go to make a point in those benighted days. Stone makes a great Billie Jean, both in looks, voice, and, most importantly, physicality. The tennis, and especially the final match, is thrilling enough to make you forget how it ends and hold your breath at every stroke.

Entertaining and fast-moving, it wears its political message lightly but none the less seriously for that, and it’s hard to think that even the piggiest chauvinistic heart doesn’t soar just a little bit at the final match. Even though in the end it maybe morphs from a battle of the sexes to a battle of the ages, with Riggs, at almost twice King’s age and outwitted as well as outplayed, hoist on his own chutzpah.

Seem at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle December 2017