Thursday 30 November 2017

Film: Battle of the Sexes'

I truly loved this, and it's an emotion for which you don't have to be an ardent tennis fan (which I'm not, anymore) to share. Furthermore, being so hardly even helps, the essential drama being played out, not so much in the climactic tennis game, than in the battle of wills between superstar Billie-Jean King (ladies' championship credentials newly eclipsed by Aussie, Margaret Court) and her challenger, Bobby Riggs in 1973. 

I was a keen tennis watcher (and hopeless player) back in the 1960s when this spoilt teenage kid, a brattish upstart named Billie-Jean Moffat, came on the scene, the enfant terrible of the time, yelling her way to victory ("Oh NOOOOO!") through temper tantrums and unsportsman(/woman)like, immature behaviour, drawing boos from the spectators for her loutish, non-existent 'gamesmanship' - and paving the way for the yet more outrageously behaved John McEnroe. But it was she who had by then killed off any interest I had in watching the sport, something from which I have never recovered. (Incidentally, in this film nothing at all is shown of her displaying the childish playing antics which were then as much her trademark as her excellence at tennis).
Of course, everyone knows what a lovely LGBTQ icon King has now become - as well as being a personal friend of Elton, no less! (I take it that the brief inclusion of his 'Rocket Man' on the soundtrack is an acknowledgment of that fact.) 

I must confess to not having become aware of the subject at the heart of this film until some 20 years after it had happened. Apparently the ultimate game was televised live around the world at the time though I don't recall it. I dare say it must have featured in news programmes, though low-down on the list of matters of significant import.

The film starts with B-J.K. (Emma Stone) expressing disapproval that in an American tournament, the men victors will earn a prize eight times that of the women, on the grounds that male players are a 'better watch' and generate more public interest - despite the fact that ticket sales for both games are in about equal demand. King pulls herself, along with other female player-supporters, out of the tournament until this injustice is rectified. Now national news, it comes to the attention of former champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), who immediately gets a bee in his bonnet about men being the better players and therefore deserve a higher scale of prizes. He is so incensed that he issues a challenge that he will play and beat any woman, putting up $100,000 of his own money as stake.  Newly-crowned women's champion, Margaret Court, takes up the challenge. (I wasn't aware of this at all until this film).

But while this is going on, the married, 28-year old King, finds, much to her own surprise, that she is quite suddenly attracted to her new hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) - their initial encounter while she is getting her hair done being quite beautifully realised. The  slow dawning on Emma Stone's face of her being attracted to another woman is something to behold.
The realisation of King's husband (Austin Stowell) that something is going on which he didn't foresee is excellently and sensitively portrayed, capturing the confusion and emotional turmoil as he doesn't know how to express his feelings, yet not wishing to give up on loyalty to his wife. I found this aspect particularly moving.

I must also register that Emma Stone's bespectacled likeness to whom she plays is quite remarkable, her smile having a particularly uncanny resemblance.

Then there's Steve Carrell, whom I only first noticed when he was playing second fiddle to Jim Carrey in 'Bruce Almighty' (2003). I'd never been a great fan of his, at least not until his extraordinary appearance in 'Foxcatcher' (2014) where he totally subsumed his scarily domineering role - and since then I recognise that he is indeed an actor of astonishing versatility. 
This role as Bobby Riggs is a tricky one to pull off successfully without it descending into cartoon-like silliness, looking back on it from over 40 years down the line, voicing male attitudes towards women which were very prevalent at the time - and which I can verify, some of it much to my own shame! Riggs wears the soubriquet of 'Male Chauvinist Pig' proudly on his sleeve, a 'badge of honour', opining that women belong in the kitchen and should give their energies to raising families. His own wife (Elizabeth Shue) can only take so much from him, more for his own pig-headedness than his general m.c.p. attitudes. 
His contention, frequently aired on radio, includes the belief that men being (generally) the stronger sex in muscle terms, it stands to reason that they will outclass women on the tennis court - and besides, women can't handle the mental pressure of it all! Of course, all this to King is like showing a red rag to a bull - and so she decides to take up the challenge.

Always hovering in the background is the watchful (baleful?) presence of the 'wholesome', baby-carrying Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is quick to pick up on King's infatuation (and more) with Marilyn, and she doesn't waste any time in not-so-subtly making her displeasure at their relationship known.
If this is an accurate depiction of Court's attitudes back in the 1970s, she certainly hasn't advanced at all since those days, as evidenced in her prominent opposition to equal marriage in Australia's recent referendum 'debate'.  

It's a busy film on the whole, thanks to some snappy editing - though the few scenes of genuine intimacy between King and her lover do threaten to develop into longueurs, which they thankfully don''t. The film gallops along pleasurably, feeling nothing like the two hours of its actual length.
I must also add that there aren't any overlong tennis-playing sequences. Even the climactic match is shrewdly put together with only a few of the salient shots shown - and excellently edited too.
The film also demonstrates that, despite their polarised views, King and Riggs had a surprisingly respectful and playful regard for each other.

Screenplay is by Simon Beaufoy, best known for the original 'The Full Monty', and it's a good, sharp script with scarcely a word too many. 

If I have one major qualification it's the character of Marilyn, King's lover. In many reviews I've seen Andrea Riseborough is given credit for her part in this role. I found the character insipid, such that I was confused as to why King would have been attracted to such a colourless personality. Though Emma Stone's high quality acting did bring me to the belief that she was, against the odds as I saw it, really attracted to this Marilyn, I found little emotional chemistry between the two of them. But obviously I'm out on a limb in thinking this. That was the only major defect for me in this film. 

The regular two-person team of directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (both also directing the rather fine 'Little Miss Sunshine' of 2006) take the helm here and I have no quarrel at all with their finished work. It's hard to see how it could have been improved, apart from my one personal reservation above.

All in all, then, a thoroughly enjoyable experience which I've no doubt will be shared by many................8.


  1. I am looking forward to this one as I remember seeing the match played out on Tv as a young queerling.

    1. I think it's even better for those of us who remember something of the time, Bob. As I say, although I don't recall this particular game and the argument which led up to its being played, I do most clearly remember the controversial participation in the sport of the disruptive Billie-Jean. The film shouldn't let you down.

  2. Hi Ray. Seeing as I have adopted you as my friend I looked to see what we have in common. I too love languages and have dabbbled in many language classes at evening class over the years. Spanish, French, Russian, Greek, German. I always say that I might have been clever if I had stuck in at school... sadly I never did. Turns out I am more creative than clver. Oh well, when I come back next time round I might be clever

    1. Hello there, Cherie. Great to have you here and I look forward with enthusiasm to exchanging opinions with you inn future on all matters, and not just on films, whether or not you share a passion for the cinema.

      As for languages, at which I was hopeless at school, my former fluencies (peaking about 20 years ago) has grown very rusty now through having no opportunity to put them to practice. I'd be hard put to put intelligible sentences together in Spanish now. French I could do slightly better in and German I could just about still manage for conversation, though it would be very halting. (I've attained diplomas in the latter two with the Open University - as well as 3/4 of the way there in Spanish).
      I also dabbled in Russian some decades ago (as well as Dutch), though never tried Greek - and I still have Linguaphone courses here (books and cassettes) on several more including Japanese.

      I did pretty well at school but foolishly thought that I was nowhere near clever enough to go to University, so left at O-levels - and then later was mightily peeved at finding out that others in the lower streams (I was in the highest) stayed on, got more O-levels, then A-levels, and did manage to get into University even though in my time they were reckoned to be especially 'thick'. No one was around to put me right and I've always felt that missing out on getting a degree was one of the really great failures of my life.
      Anyway, good to chat here about your own perspective. Let's talk more about this and other things later.
      'bye for now.