Battle of the Sexes re-enacts a famous moment in the fight for gender equality. Does it go far enough?
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If you had to name the most likeable actors in Hollywood, Emma Stone and Steve Carell would surely be the top seeds. And if you wanted to make a film about the 1973 tennis match between superstar Billie Jean King and faded ex-pro Bobby Riggs that portrayed both players as, well, likeable, you’d want those two on board. Which is what Little Miss
Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris seem to have gone for with their new movie, Battle of the
Sexes, and with the expected results. A likeable film starring likeable people about some other likeable people. Little blue thumbs-ups all round.
But the subject is a serious one. In 1972, Billie Jean King had just triumphed at the US Open, when word
got out of a new tournament offering the men’s champion eight times more than the winner of the women’s competition. Her protest got her kicked out of the United States Tennis Association. (Progress stayed slow: male and female Wimbledon winners didn’t win equal cash prizes until 2007.) It also sparked a brainwave in master selfpublicist Riggs: the match that became the most watched sports event on TV at the time.
Battle of the Sexes plots the build-up to the game, alongside King’s growing awareness of her own sexuality — she was married but became involved with her hairdresser (played by Andrea
Riseborough) — and Riggs’ own private concerns: a gambling habit and a desire to blow some hot air into his deflating career. When Riggs cavorts about in a “chauvinist” T-shirt, he does so with cartoonish lack of sincerity, happy to play the panto villain for another round in the limelight.
The problem is knowing just who’s in on the joke. Are the male fans wearing “chauvinist” T-shirts also being ironic? Or can playing the comedy misogynist simply empower many more uncomedic misogynists to come out of the woodwork? The film lets Riggs off the hook on this one, and maybe the audience too, so we can leave with hearts a little fuller than they were, and heads a little emptier than they perhaps should be.
Battle of the Sexes is out in cinemas on 24 November
Wrestle mania: Emma Stone and Steve Carell, left, play out the 1973 Riggs versus King match, below, in Battle of the Sexes