I don’t have many real idols in my life, but there is absolutely no doubt that Billie Jean King one of them. A legend of tennis and a legend of activism, the story of Billie Jean King’s life both on and off the court could easily make for a seven or eight part HBO series, but right now, Battle Of The Sexes is here to focus on a particularly infamous event in the champion’s career. Anybody who read my recent Borg vs McEnroe will already know that tennis is my jam, but more than anything, women’s tennis is my jam, and the female greats of the game are really, really my jam. To say I was excited about Battle Of The Sexes would be an understatement of epic proportions.
The film tells the story of the legendary ‘Battle Of The Sexes’, a 1973 tennis match between then world number one, 29-year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and the 55-year-old former US Open and Wimbledon champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). One a progressive feminist and the other a showman with a chauvinistic edge, the match-up captured the hearts and minds of a nation, and the narrative progresses through two main plot threads, preparation for the pivotal match and the more personal journey of self discovery that Billie Jean embarks on as she begins an extra-marital affair with a woman named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
If you’re looking for level minded film criticism today, I fear that you’re not going to find it here, because despite a few small flaws, Battle Of The Sexes ticks every single one of my boxes. I’m not ashamed to admit that I can forgive several sins if I fall in love with a movie, and this has certainly happened here. There is an obvious inspiring, triumphant, fighting against adversity type vibe from beginning to end, and that kind of tone will win me over every single time. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have done an excellent job at making the film equal parts dramatic, motivational, and ‘important feeling’ whilst never forgetting to inject a pleasing dose of humour and charm when it is needed.
There’s no doubting that the narrative is neater, more streamlined and perhaps a little more idealised than the real life events might have been, but in terms of satisfying cinema, Battle Of The Sexes hardly puts a foot wrong. Passages of the narrative that are dedicated solely to the personal life of Bobby Riggs are perhaps where the picture loses slight momentum, but everything to do with Billie Jean, on and off the court, is so good, so engaging, so enjoyable and captivating that it more than makes up for any detached feeling scenes in the less interesting world of Riggs. On an entirely personally petty, tennis geek note, I also cannot describe how glorious it is to see Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), another tennis great with unfortunate, offensive personal beliefs and values, be portrayed as the embittered bigot that time has revealed her to be. Her presence in the picture may be brief, but it strikes an extremely interesting and poignant comparison between Riggs, a silly yet slightly sympathetic showman taking advantage of an angle, and Court, a wilfully ignorant and bigoted individual who seems to despise all in her professional circle as a campaign of righteousness. I certainly know which character felt like the true ‘villain’ of the piece.
Emma Stone is really quite miraculous as Billie Jean King. Not only does she bare a strong resemblance to the young tennis legend, but there is also a mastery of Billie Jean’s physical presence and movement that turns the performance from simple imitation to sheer immersion. She captures the sporting intensity of being the best in the world, and she also captures the sensual vulnerability of a woman only just starting to discover her true identity. It is nuanced and it is enigmatic. Stone may have picked up the Oscar for La La Land at the start of the year, but I’d go so far as saying that this is her most impressive performance to date. Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs does a similarly fantastic job, managing to walk that fine line between being a key antagonist yet also being a massively sympathetic character in the story. The audience, of course, root for Stone’s Billie Jean, but Carell evokes a certain pathetic quality amidst Rigg’s antics that really helps to keep the film grounded and kind of charming even in the more enraging moments of chauvinism.
Another strong aspect of the film it is stellar cast of supporting actors. Various important roles are played by Sarah Silverman, Andrea Riseborough, Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales, Fred Armisen and Austin Stowell, all of whom have their own individually fantastic moments. Even Jessica McNamee, who has the thankless job of having to play Margaret Court, gives a great, entirely unlikable performance, one that balances out a lot of the more light hearted action that takes place among the women’s tour friends and the Bobby Riggs circus.
Overall, if you can’t quite tell, I absolutely loved Battle Of The Sexes. The film is cool in its 70s aesthetic and cool in its powerful message of equality and fighting against adversity. Please don’t be put off by the idea of it being a ‘sports movie’. Much like the career of Billie Jean King herself, it uses tennis as a central point to branch off in to so many other universal themes and subjects. From sexism to sexuality to equality and everything in between, the film is a wonderfully inspiring and uplifting piece that boasts one of the best leading performances from an actress I have seen all year. One of Billie Jean’s most famous sayings is ‘pressure is a privilege’, and Battle Of The Sexes handles the pressure of its narrative with a deft and endearing touch. Without a doubt one of my favourites of the year.