‘Battle of the Sexes’: An intriguing, lovingly made look at the strive for equality, empowerment and self-acceptance

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Emma Stone as “Billie Jean King” and Steve Carell as “Bobby Riggs” in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The biopic can be a dangerous genre. It is notoriously difficult to get right, and many often fall short of the mark; they regularly find themselves bogged down by dullness, and concern themselves far too much with boring details. ‘Battle of the Sexes’, however, never suffers from such issues. Instead, it presents itself as a thoughtful, warm snapshot into the life of Billie Jean King and a powerful depiction of the turmoil that she faced both on and off court. Set in 1973, and featuring a soundtrack that often captures the best of the era, ‘Battle of the Sexes’ focuses on the historic match between King (Emma Stone) and life-long hustler, and former men’s tennis champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). When we consider recent revelations surrounding pay disparity between men and women in some of the largest, richest industries in the world, the film could not have been released at a more appropriate time. It may be set in the seventies, steeped in an age of intolerance and conservativism, but it appears to fit perfectly into modern times, as male chauvinists continue to parade around, even in the White House. As Riggs, Carrell relishes the role and has fun as a showman; embittered by the lack of attention he receives in the media. He cavorts around the tennis courts in a series of ridiculous outfits, more than happy to play the role of the eccentric, self-proclaimed sexist. Carrell’s exaggerated Riggs serves as the perfect contrast to Stone’s measured, yet stubbornly defiant King. Both actors give wonderful performances here, and effortlessly bounce off one another in every scene they share; which makes the two hour runtime feel far shorter than expected, and allows us to fully enjoy the film’s exploration of both characters.

‘Battle of the Sexes’ opens with a few, scattered shots of a then twenty-nine-year-old King sprinting across the tennis court with ease, evidently unfazed by any competition that dares to challenge her. In the very first scene, it is made clear to us that King is at the top of her game, and on top of the world. However, threats constantly loom large over King’s success, as is shown in the form of Jack Kramer; former tennis player and vehement misogynist if ever there was one. Upon discovering that Kramer, along with the United States Lawn Tennis Association, have decided that the women should be paid an eighth of the prize money that the men will receive for a new tournament, King rightfully rebels in the face of such sexism. Helped along by women’s promoter Gladys Heldman – played with riotous brilliance by Sarah Silverman – and a collective of female players, King establishes the Women’s Tennis Association and steels herself for what is to come next. We all know where this will go, what match will serve as the grand crescendo, but it is the middle of the film, often considered ‘awkward’ in many sport biopics, that acts as the most intriguing part of the whole piece.

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From here on out, following the launch of a new women’s tour, until we arrive at the film’s exhilarating climax, this is where, in any other sporting drama, things could start to get boring. In ‘Battle of the Sexes’, however, this is where the film’s most tender aspects take place. As King prepares to embark on a journey that will pave the way for equality in her sport, she finds herself embroiled in a burgeoning friendship with a hairdresser that she meets in L.A; Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). In a role that could easily slip under the radar, Riseborough gives a wonderfully nuanced performance; perfect as the lover that sneaks up on an endearingly nervous King, and leads her into a world of self-discovery. Their relationship is a tentative one yet, at the same time, it is full of passion and sensuality; brief scenes of the two of them exploring one another’s bodies for the first time are almost unbearably intimate, and beautifully shot. Their relationship is one of the strongest points of the film, and certainly helps to separate it from others which chart similar topics. One of finest scenes in ‘Battle of the Sexes’, in fact, revolves around King and Barnett’s first outing together. Emboldened by the power of her growing attraction towards Barnett, King follows her merrily to a bar and watches, entranced, as she sways to Tommy James and The Shondells’ ‘Crimson and Clover’. As the intoxicating sounds of seventies guitar fills the room around them, sexual potential simmers between the pair, and tensions begin to make themselves clear in a scene reminiscent of Black Mirror’s ‘San Junipero’. Mirrors and neon lights play an essential role in establishing the atmosphere here, in that we, too, come close to falling for Marilyn; spellbound by the soft purples that frame the shape of her face.

Another of the film’s greatest strengths also centres around the romantic aspects of King’s life and can be found in the portrayal of her former husband, Larry (Austin Stowell). ‘Battle of the Sexes’ could have easily depicted Larry as a jealous, unsympathetic man, enraged by his wife’s discovery of her true self. Thankfully, it instead chooses to paint him as genuine and well-meaning; a man that honestly attempts to understand King’s torment and makes the decision to put her first. Billie Jean’s infidelity must, undoubtedly, hurt like hell but Larry carefully detaches himself from the situation and does what little he can to aid her in her confusion. His separation of his wants from hers is admirable and helps to convey the complexities of life; in the real world, good people do bad things, and love is far from a simple concept. By making Larry a sympathetic character, the film avoids conforming to traditional tropes and offers a well-balanced, fair depiction of the breakdown of a relationship. What could have easily been terrible is instead handled poignantly and with delicacy. It is a feat that Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the film’s directors, should be immensely proud of.

‘Battle of the Sexes’ is, ultimately, a well-made, enjoyable piece that expertly explores issues of inequality in a conservative era, while managing to feel more relevant than ever. Given the current political climate, the story of King’s strive for empowerment, respect, and acceptance strikes a particularly strong chord amongst a contemporary audience. The closing credits tell us that times did, indeed, change for King and fills us with hopefulness but we are also reminded that the path to equality is never an easy one. The film’s final lines, spoken by none other than Alan Cummings, never lets us forget that there will always be battles to be fought, and that, sometimes, we must fight them one at a time. Cummings, as King’s wry stylist, tells her, and therefore us too, that we must learn to enjoy what victories we can, to dance in the light of a new dawn, before the next struggle begins.

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