Saturday 21 September 2019

It's game, sex and match

Duo shine in this witty 1970s biopic about a bizarre tennis contest, says Paul Whitington

Serving up a treat: Emma Stone andSteve Carell in Battle of the Sexes
Serving up a treat: Emma Stone andSteve Carell in Battle of the Sexes
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Films coming soon...

Wonder (Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson); Happy End (Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant); The Man Who Invented Christmas (Dan Stevens, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Plummer); Thelma (Eile Harboe).

If you think sexism is rampant these days you should have seen the 1970s - and in Battle of the Sexes, you can. This broad but very entertaining comic drama is the work of writing and directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and based on a bizarre true story. In 1973, a 55-year-old former tennis champion called Bobby Riggs decided to challenge reigning women's number one Billie Jean King to a tennis match.

Men are innately the superiors of women, went his argument, so even an old has-been like him could easily thump a female champ in her prime. Riggs wasn't very sincere in his chauvinism and was simply an inveterate hustler on the make, but his 'battle of the sexes' idea caught the imagination of the American public and would lead to a televised showdown.

Emma Stone stars as a slightly idealised Billie Jean King, the biggest female star of the 70s, and one of the greatest tennis players of all time. At the start of the film, she and her wonderfully brassy agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the American Lawn Tennis Association, over his announcement of a forthcoming tennis tournament in which female players will be paid a tenth of the male stars' fees. Kramer's sexism is so deep-rooted he doesn't even notice it: he's part of a generation affronted and subconsciously terrified by the rise of feminism.

'Not on my watch' seems to be his motto and when King and Heldman threaten to establish their own rival women's circuit, Kramer smiles condescendingly and wishes them the best of luck. He reckons they'll come crawling back to him with their tails between their legs, but has underestimated the resolve and sheer stubbornness of Billie Jean, who persuades a roster of top female players to join her on their pirate tour.

This being the 70s, their 'Virginia Slims' circuit would end up being sponsored by a cigarette company, but proved a bigger success than Jack Kramer thought. And meanwhile, Billie Jean has been getting calls in the dead of night from Riggs (Steve Carell), challenging her to a three-set tennis match. She knows who and what Bobby is, and turns him down, but when a crowing Riggs challenges and easily beats Australian champion Margaret Court, King realises she'll have to accept his test for the sake of the women's game. And that's not her only problem because the married Billie Jean has just begun a clandestine love affair with a Californian hairdresser called Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). It's all going on then, and the question is whether the film's directors have succeeded in keeping all these tennis balls in the air at once. Mostly, they have.

Dayton and Faris are the husband-and-wife team who brought you Little Miss Sunshine, a film so sublime it's proved almost impossible to follow. Battle of the Sexes will do for the time being, however, because it's a lively and witty comic drama that tries its best not to second guess the 70s, and take its social and sexual attitudes at face value. Emma Stone's Billie Jean is an extremely appealing heroine, uneasy in the limelight and unsure how to solve her personal dilemmas in an age where a dim view was taken of anything non-hetero.

Silverman sinks her teeth into the role of King's chain-smoking Jewish agent with gusto, and Natalie Morales is well cast as Latina tennis ace Rosie Casals. Nice too to see Elisabeth Shue back on the screen: she is nicely restrained playing Riggs' exasperated wife. At this stage, it comes as no surprise that Steve Carell can act, but he's excellent as the child-like and oddly likeable Riggs, whose chauvinism always rings hollow (in real life, he and King became friends).

It's great fun all in all, but the casual sexism on display is flabbergasting. In the build up to the big match, veteran TV broadcaster Howard Cosell chats with King's friend "little Rosie Casals", and spends the entire interview with his arm proprietorially draped around her neck. He'd be in big trouble if he tried that on today.

Battle of the Sexes

(12A, 121mins)


Irish Independent

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