Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Battle of the Sexes – stubborn tennis talent clashes with egotistic chauvinism while relationship drama relegated to tram lines (from 24 November)

Speaking out against the gender inequality in 1970s tennis prize money, leading player Billy Jean King pulls the other top women players out of the US Lawn Tennis Association to form their own tournament (funded by sponsorship from a cigarette firm). But some of the men won’t take the claim for equal play lying down. Former champion and hustler Bobby Riggs comes out of retirement to challenge the leading women’s players to a winner-takes-all prize, the Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone captures the feisty yet vulnerable Billy Jean King, married to Larry (Austin Stowell) but devoted to the game. Her concentration and on-court performance takes a battering when she falls for the charms of hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). The significance of the film’s title is twofold: equal pay for tennis players, and societal acceptance of same-sex relationships. Both threaten King’s career.

Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs as a clown, more interested in publicity stunts and raking in the cash than practising his game, which by all accounts is entirely true to life. His strategy makes short work of the first challenge match with Australian player Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee). She introduces the dimension of moral disapproval to the film.

A second challenge with a greater prize pot lures King onto the court to take on the celebrated “self-styled male chauvinist pig” Riggs, the match being dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”.

I’m not sure if I can remember a sport-based film that I’ve enjoyed or wanted to enjoy. Not even Rocky. So my bar was set pretty high when I walked into the preview of Battle of the Sexes.

For a while the film becomes bogged down in re-emphasising the specious reasons the men at the top of the US LTA put up to defend their bias. But the story recovers as the scale of Riggs’ gambling addiction is revealed and as the flirty hairdresser joins the tournament entourage. In places you could cut the sexual tension with a forearm smash.

Elton John’s Rocket Man is an unnecessary (albeit accurate, 1972) over-the-top signpost. Some of the best moments in the film are watching King’s husband reacting quite unexpectedly to the realisation that he’s no longer just up against sport for her affections.

Battle of the Sexes is sufficiently engaging that it overcomes its 121 minute duration. The tennis is never allowed to be focus, and is probably on-screen for less than a quarter of scenes.

The gentle off-court relationship drama becomes a sideshow to the brash on-court clash of personality. The man who wants to put show back into chauvinism is up against a strong-willed and athletic woman. Ultimately, while both Riggs and King are kept under the microscope of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, stubborn King is the more engaging character to study and audiences are never encouraged to build up empathy with ill-prepared and egotistic Riggs.

This morality tale is played for entertainment rather than for shock value. The two central issues are still alive today. Wimbledon was the last of the four major tennis tournaments to introduce equal prize money for men and women back in 2007, but equal pay remains an issue in other minor tournaments and gender is not the only discriminator. Sexuality remains something that is often kept under covers to avoid sponsorship deals falling through, as happened when King was outed in the years after the film concludes.

Battle of the Sexes is in Movie House Cinemas, the Strand Arts Centre, Queen’s Film Theatre and other venues from Friday 24 November.

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