Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen
Runtime: 121 Minutes
One of the most interesting aspects of Battle of the Sexes is what a different type of movie it is to the one that the marketing material has been selling; as opposed to the high energy comedy-drama headed by a two-hander performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell as tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs respectively, the film proper is a much slower and more character driven biopic about Billie Jean King with Bobby Riggs in a supporting role.
Based loosely on the famous 1973 tennis match of the same title, the plot pits King and Riggs against one another in a winner takes all promotional event for primetime television. Of course, this is just the designation. The story is far more focused on the life of King and her position in the field of tennis in the lead up to the event, and far less as sensationalist as the title might suggest.
The film has a real emotional charge behind it, much of which is down to a fantastically subdued performance from Stone in one of her best ever roles. Beneath her simmering fury at an unjust system that places women of secondary focus in a male-dominated and focused enterprise, she’s a highly conflicted character who might see stooping to the level of Riggs’ attempts to bait her into the match as a failing for womankind, but eventually comes to see the challenge as a chance to stand up for something greater than herself.
What is also dealt with extensively is the nature of King’s sexual orientation; specifically her fleeting relationship with a young woman, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Not only does the film’s messages regarding the status of women in society come forward, but also the oppressed voices of members of the LGBT community who in this period specifically were still struggling to carve a path for themselves in society. This is no more obvious than in the final moments, in which Alan Cumming’s Ted Tinling expresses that while one minor battle might be over, their time will eventually come when they can emerge and be embraced by the world around them.
This is very much King’s story, with the time afforded to flesh out Riggs as a more dimensional antagonist figure in the B story. That being said, Riggs never feels like the true villain or even that bad of a person beyond being generally rather weak-minded and pathetic individual – that privilege belongs to Bill Pullman deliciously slimy version of Jack Kramer. He’s set back by his own shortcomings and insecurities in sharing a dominant relationship with wife played by Elisabeth Shue, and he’s allowed a fair amount of sympathy despite his media performance as the baddie chauvinist and the manner in which he sells it to the cameras while failing to actually take training into account.
Directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (whose previous pictures were the terrific Ruby Sparks and Little Miss Sunshine) have delivered a gorgeously photographed version of the 1970s with a great eye for period detail through a prominent blend of convincing art direction, hair and clothing designs. But their camera is at all times focused on the eyes and faces of their leads in an expressive way. That is until the match itself arrives at the climax and is a pretty thrilling piece of spectacle. Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay sparkles at points with staunch feminist commentary and establishment slamming even in its broader moments of fiction, the shortcomings falling on its near complete lack of actual characterisation for love interest Andrea Riseborough.
Even if Battle of the Sexes could have used another pass over to flesh out some of its smaller roles, the performances all around are good enough to make up for them in some measure. This is a really solid, very enjoyable biopic with a relevant story to tell and a spectacular leading performance from Stone.