Battle of the Sexes review: 'entertaining and surprising'

Dir: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton, 91 mins, starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Chris Parnell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming

Ageing tennis star Bobby Riggs used to play games for bets while wearing Wellington boots and holding a dachshund on a leash. It is worth bearing this image of Riggs in mind when you contemplate his notorious “battle of the sexes” match against Billie Jean King in 1973, dramatised in this film.

Riggs stood for sexism, entrenched patriarchal thinking and deep conservatism, but he was also a bit of a buffoon. A gambling addict, he was a caricature of the idea of the dominant, alpha male.

His main motivation in playing Billie Jean wasn’t in beating back the bra-burning, women’s lib movement with which she was so closely associated, but in hustling as much money as possible.

Battle Of The Sexes is fully alert to the contradictions surrounding Riggs. That’s what makes it such an entertaining and surprising film. Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, working from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (of Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire fame), deal with serious subjects (inequality, homophobia and addiction) in a light and playful way. They are far more interested in the drama off the court than on it.

Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King with the same cheery resilience that she brought to her role as the struggling young actress in Hollywood in La La Land. King, here encountered first in 1972, is already one of the top-ranked tennis stars. Her make up, hair and dental work make her look uncannily like King.

“There’s no stopping this little lady!” a typically chauvinistic commentator enthuses of King’s playing. That doesn’t mean she is earning anything like as much as the male stars on the circuit.

“People pay to see the men play; they are more of a draw … the men are simply more exciting to watch – they’re faster, stronger and more competitive,” runs the party line from the male organisers of tournaments, who’ll offer the women as little as one-eighth of what the men get.

A group of leading women players break away and play on their own tour under their glamorous, chain-smoking manager, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). They’re being paid a pittance but Heldman secures sponsorship from a tobacco company. Cue comic shots of the young tennis stars posing for photographers with cigarettes in their mouths.

At the same time that the women are getting their tour off the ground, Riggs is trying to save his marriage and to curb his addictions, of which gambling is the most serious. Steve Carrell portrays him as a middle-aged Peter Pan who can’t help behaving like a giant kid.

He loves to gamble and play pranks. He loves to win. He’ll make even the most routine event – an evening spent with his young son – into an outlandish adventure. He’s a showman. Bobby is also seedy and a little desperate. His wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) grows increasingly exasperated at his outlandish antics. Her wealthy father has set him up with a white collar job but he doesn’t have the patience to stay behind a desk for long.

In a performance tinged with comedy and pathos, Carrell captures Riggs’s sleaziness, his chutzpah and his childlike quality. If he is a male chauvinist pig, he is a strangely likeable one. He promotes his matches first with the priggish, ultra-religious Margaret Court, and then with Billie Jean, as if he is a pantomime jester.

He understands that this isn’t just about tennis or gender and equal pay. It’s a ratings-driven, reality TV style circus in which every participant will benefit financially, whatever the cost to his or her dignity. He is always ready with a quip if he thinks it will sell more tickets, or attract more TV viewers. His goal is to put the “show” back in chauvinism.

Billie Jean is very single minded about her tennis (“If you get between her and the game, you’ll be gone,” one of her admirers is told) but that doesn’t stop her falling in love with her hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Riseborough plays this character beautifully, as a dreamy flower power child who seems very effete and distracted but has a knack of getting what she wants.

At first, Billie Jean is desperate to hide her lesbian affair. She is married to the genial, blandly good looking and dim-witted Larry King (Austin Towell). He treats her with puppyish devotion and she doesn’t want to upset him.

The affair, though, becomes part of her fight for equal rights. “Someday, we will be free to be who we are and love who we love,” says King’s close friend, gay fashion stylist Ted (Alan Cumming), late on in the movie. This is one of the rare moments of sermonising in a film which generally serves up its messages in a sly and playful fashion.

The tennis is well handled, too. The match between King and Riggs is far more compelling and far easier to watch than the frenzied, over-edited showdown between the protagonists in this year’s other big tennis movie, Borg/McEnroe.

Riggs as played by Carrell is a pantomime-style figure but his stunts show up the casual sexism of the white, male establishment. When he receives his come-uppance, as we always know he will, the prejudices of the other male journalists, administrators and ex-players are exposed.

“The comedy has gone out of Bobby Riggs,” a commentator observes, when an exhausted Riggs realises the match with King is turning against him. Riggs is perceptive enough to describe himself as a Custer making his last stand. He realises that the chauvinistic attitudes he is supposedly there to champion are already long past their sell-by-date.