AS THEY DID so un-fussily in their earlier movie, “Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, along with writer and Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) tackle this heavy topic of misogyny and sexual discrimination with effortless dexterity and a light hand. These guys are masters of tone.
In this marvellously entertaining story of the famous grudge match between Bobby Riggs – a past tennis champion turned Carnival huckster and gambler – and Billy Jean King, then the world number one women’s player, Messrs. Dayton and Faris make their points without ever belabouring them.
Emma Stone is a thoroughly convincing Billy Jean (with, a remarkable physical resemblance). She plays the part against “type”. This “type” as depicted by Riggs, Jack Kramer the President of the US Lawn Tennis Association (Bill Pullman) and pretty much all the men in the movie, is really one of two cartoon archetypes in which all women are slotted. The (preferred) type is that of the woman who accepts her inferiority and knows that her real place is either in the bedroom or the kitchen. Her opposite is the upperty/feminist type: the woman as harridan (“a hairy legged feminist” as Riggs describes her), who somehow refuses to recognise or acknowledge her inferiority.
The BJK we meet is a real person, not a type. We hear about her character long before we really meet her; she’s a single-trick pony: someone so obsessed with her tennis that she’d sacrifice anything. But the (married) Billy-Jean we meet is warm, funny, engaging and, much to her surprise, smitten by another woman (resulting in the third ‘type’, still to this day despised by the venomous, fellow player, Margaret Court: the lesbian type. There is indeed a strong gay subtext in the movie. The battle is never only about recognition and equal pay; “equality” is as much about gender as it is about sexuality)
The writing is clever. Even as we’re warming to this more fragile side of her personality, we’re introduced to the steelier, courageous, “don’t fuck with me” side. The side that refuses to accept her male counterparts being paid eight times more. And the side that takes on the responsibility of defending her gender’s demand for equality by finally rising to Rigg’s misogynist Man v Woman, Strong v Weak, Superior v Inferior challenge.
The eponymous Battle of the Sexes.
So very much hung on this match!
Riggs was coming off a victory over Margaret Court; someone who’d clearly accepted the narrative of female inferiority, and yielded to it. That victory had proven Kramer’s point, and his justification for the unbalanced pay scales: that women simply didn’t have the nerve, the disposition, the emotional toughness to stand up to ‘real’ (i.e. male) tennis players.
BJK frets and worries about losing. And like the warrior she is, she prepares for battle. Riggs, as a man, assumes he’ll win.
But if BJK is a nicely rounded personality, the writers deliberately leave Riggs as a cartoon character; one as buffoonish as his patronizing and contemptuous, if popular, views on women (despite being entirely dependent on one, his long suffering wife). It’s a subtle editorial comment that.
Steve Carrell’s Riggs is as physically compelling as Stone’s BJK. And like Ms. Stone’s portrayal , it’s a nicely subtle and convincing piece of acting: appearing one dimensional…almost the pantomime villain, without it being one dimensional acting. There are only occasional flashes, and especially at the cathartic end, when Carrell allows us to see the sad, hollow man his character really is.
Stone and Carrell dominate the movie. But two other characters manage to edge into frame: Sarah Silverman is Gladys Heldman, the pushy, ballsy, bossy manager of (BJK’s) newly formed Women’s Tennis Association (disparagingly referred to as Ladies’ tennis). And, as the darker, more menacing, more threatened face of male misogynism, Bill Pullman’ is excellent (condescending, sneering, supercilious) as her counterpart as the USLTA.
Billy Jean’s courage, her victorious battle of the sexes, was the first big breakthrough in making some headway in gender pay equality. And, even back then, the WTA’s first big sponsor, Virginia Slims, said it succinctly: “We’ve Come a Long Way, Babe”. But, with the sad reality of 33 women CEO’s in the Top 500 US companies, that slogan, like the reality of equal pay would suggest that there’s a verrrry long way to go yet.
Battle of the Sexes. Dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris. With: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverstein, Alan Cumming, Andrea Riseborough (“The Death of Stalin”) Writer: Simon Beaufoy. Cinematography: Lindys Sandgren (“American Hustle”)