Women’s rights are often taken for granted in this day and age, despite the continued presence of casual sexism and gender discrimination. Some would argue that the problems our society faces today are no different to those that existed in 1973, a time when it took a tennis match to disprove one of the world’s greatest fallacies.
Tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is at the peak of her career, having just assumed the title of World Number 1 in the female tennis rankings. Her professionalism on- and off-court has made her one of the most popular players on tour, yet there are those individuals who do not see how valuable she is to the sport. One such individual is Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a former champion who helps organise and promote events on the professional circuit.
Presently, Billie is dismayed to learn that the prize money for an upcoming tournament is a meagre $1500, an eighth of what the male winner will earn. She takes her grievances to Kramer who, predictably, doesn’t see the merit in King’s desire for equal pay. Frustrated, King makes the decision to manage and compete in her own all-female tournament, with many of her fellow players participating – including her chief rival, Australia’s own Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).
Keenly scrutinising these events is Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), himself a former Number 1 on the male circuit, who is looking to ease his financial difficulties. He telephones King in the early hours of the morning, pitching to her the idea of a Male-versus-Female tennis match, only to have his suggestion rejected. But Riggs, being the schemer that he is, has concocted a plan to ensure that the face-off eventually goes ahead.
Although it takes the appearance of a by-the-numbers biopic, Battle of the Sexes is smarter than its façade suggests. For one, it draws several present-day parallels – men openly declare themselves to be misogynistic, the soundtrack features Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, and Margaret Court is depicted as an antagonist. Yes, the former First Lady of Australian Tennis is wickedly portrayed by McNamee, and taken to task for her archaic views on sexuality.
Conversely, the film’s central “antagonist”, Bobby Riggs is treated more sympathetically – remarkable, given the movie’s feminist themes. Much of the picture’s runtime is spent developing and humanising Riggs’ character, to the point where one might even feel sorry for him. Of course, that isn’t to say that his behaviour is forgivable, and Battle of the Sexes justly punishes the self-described “male chauvinist pig” for his many misdemeanours.
What makes Riggs tolerable, at least somewhat, is the very talented actor who portrays him. While recognised for his comedic roles, in recent years Steve Carell has more often taken the lead in dramatic films, much like this one. Here, Carell is convincing and utterly charming in a performance which, once again, demonstrates why he is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after and underappreciated actors. His tennis skills are pretty good, too.
Equally wonderful is Emma Stone, whose portrayal of King is emotional and intimate. She may have already received an Oscar for her performance in La La Land, but her efforts in this picture prove that she’s capable of doing much more. And she isn’t the only one, for there are several others who put in great, albeit brief performances, including Sarah Silverman, Andrea Riseborough, Alan Cumming and Elisabeth Shue.
Topical, well-acted and superb all-round, Battle of the Sexes is a biographical sports-drama with plenty of smarts. Furthermore, its subtle references to contemporary society’s ills assist in reinforcing the film’s positive message.