Filmmaking duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris who helmed the Oscar winning ‘Little Miss Sunshine‘ are back behind the cameras for another real-crowd pleaser of a movie that tackles the age old problem of parity between men and women. In this story, very much steeped in real life, the tale is not so much about the enormous financial advantages that men took for granted, but also how deep rooted the culture was that insisted women remain second class citizens on nearly every level.
It starts in 1972 when the World’s Number One female champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) discovers that male tennis players are getting paid eight times as much as their female counterparts. Unable to persuade Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) the rather smug mysoginist head of International Tennis to change even slightly, King calls his bluff and forms the breakaway Women’s Tennis Association with the cream of the female professional players.
Life is tough for them at first but then their den mother/manager Gladys Hellman (a very impressive Sarah Silverman) gets a lucrative sponsorship deal from Virginia Slims and their Tour really takes off.
It attracts a great deal of public attention including that of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) a retired Mens Champion Player who is frustrated in his loveless marriage and his dead end office job working for his father-in-law. Riggs, a compulsive gambler, is an attention seeking buffoon who sees this public acclaim for women’s tennis as way for him to get back into the spotlight and making some money too.
His premise is that women tennis players are inferior and weaker, and he is desperate to prove his point. Australian Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) has just joined the Women’s Tour and with her very conservative beliefs is very much an outsider, but she is already the No 2 player in the group. Believing that she may just take King’s title in the next Final, Riggs challenges her to a public match where the winner takes home a purse of $35000.
When he beats Court so easily, there is no holding him back, and he very publicly offers any woman $100000 if they can beat him at tennis. Now King feels that she has no option to take him on and thrash him if the women are to ever stand a chance of getting equal rights.
This is all played out in the first half of the movie against a background of relationship issues that both King and Riggs were having with their respective spouses. Riggs’ outrageous gambling habits ended up with him finally bing thrown out of his marital home by his wealthy Society wife, whilst King was suddenly being confronted with a need to deal with her sexual awakening. On a visit to the beauty salon Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) the hairdresser takes quite a shine to King, and when weeks later after a drinking spree the two end up in bed together, a smitten King is most confused.
King’s blonde matinee idol of husband Larry (Austin Stowell) never travels with his wife on Tour, but when he decides to play a surprise visit one day he quickly works out that Marilyn is now the object of his wife’s affections, a development he surprisingly takes very sanguinely. He is astute enough to know that any hint of any impropriety of scandal would not just ruin King completely, but also the whole future of women professional tennis, a point he shares with Marilyn.
Even though we go into the movie knowing the outcome of the tennis match Dayton and Faris do an excellent job keeping the tension up to the very last minute. The long match looked extremely real which was most impressive, and we were so ready to celebrate with King with her victory. The event certainly was a major turning point for women’s tennis, but also for the participants too, as it gave King the courage to eventually embrace her sexuality.
There is a side plot with the legendary tennis dress couturier Teddy Tinling (Alan Cumming) a larger-than-life character who was the first person to dress the girls in anything but white. He was openly gay and yet no-one seem to bat an eyelid, and it was he who finally comforted King with ‘Someday we will be free to be who we are and love who we want.’
It really was Stone’s movie. She eerily looked so much like the young Billie Jean-King, but more than that it was her sensitive portrayal of this rather militant feminist who was so-self assured when it came to demanding their rights, but a confused innocent when it came to her own personal life. It’s a meaty role that she totally does justice too and reminds you time and time again that her Best Actress Oscar win last year for La La Land was no fluke.
Battle of the Sexes is a throughly entertaining movie, even when you realize that some 40 years later the fight for parity still continues.