The modern political climate is an interesting one to say the least. On the one hand, our current society is the most advanced and progressive it’s ever been. Yet when we turn on the news, it can often feel that we’re moving backwards. A film like BATTLE OF THE SEXES reminds us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, whilst also being just a jolly good time at the cinema.
In the early 1970s, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was the US number-one female tennis player, but the prize money she was expected to win was only an eighth of the male players’ prize. As an act of defiance, King and her fellow female players quit the Association of Tennis Professionals. But King faces distraction from her flirtatious hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough).
Meanwhile, ex-champion player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is struggling with a gambling addiction that threatens to break apart his marriage. Instead of trying to give it up, Riggs comes up with a bet that will get him back in the public eye; a match between him and King, to prove which gender is the best at tennis.
The way the film takes the personal lives of these two characters, and runs their stories parallel alongside the central plot, is not groundbreaking, but brilliant nonetheless. Even if you know how the final match turns out, you don’t know which result would be best for their respective private struggles. That adds a whole new layer of drama to the already-infamous story, making the whole thing more cinematic.
The script is excellently funny, particularly for Carell (whose character can’t even resist playing cards in a therapy session regarding his gambling). There’s also some really sweet, tender moments, particularly for Stone and Riseborough, whose relationship feels genuine and very sensual. The direction is often beautiful, including a wonderful shot of King’s husband in a hotel corridor. He’s just received some bad news; in silhouette, backlit by the hallway lights, you can see his belly moving up and down, his breathing quickening from shock. It’s a simple touch, probably done in countless films before, but it’s very effectively done.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is the cast. On top of Stone, Carell and Riseborough, the film co-stars Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming and Natalie Morales, and features cameos from Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell and John C. McGinley. Normally, a stuffed cast like that suggests the filmmakers were more focussed on star-power than storytelling. On the contrary, everyone on screen is giving one of their strongest performances to date. The only one who could be accused of phoning it in is Cumming, whose gay costume designer is camp and clichéd to the extreme. But it’s Alan Cumming. All of his lines, even shots of him when he’s not saying anything, are the biggest laughs of the film.
This genre – if you could call it a genre – of feel-good comedy dramas, based on true stories of social justice, is tremendously successful. Films like THE FULL MONTY (1997) or PRIDE (2014) have been pleasing crowds (and bringing them to tears) for decades. On the downside, there isn’t a specifically unique selling point to set BATTLE OF THE SEXES aside from those films. It follows the formula to a T. On the upside, it might be one of the finest executions of the formula so far.
Also, if you are a little tight on money – why not consider becoming an Arts Picturehouse Member? It’s discounted for students and has so many great perks! Plus the cinema also hosts the C4 Slackers Club which also includes free tickets occasionally to new films which haven’t been release yet. Find out more here: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Arts_Picturehouse_Cambridge/buy-membership
By Ben Jones
2nd November 2017
Image Credit: Cloud Eight Films, Decibel Films, Fox Searchlight Pictures