Husband and wife directorial duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's new film Battle of the Sexes tells the story not just of the match, but the events that lead up to it and the events that made it inevitable that it would eventually happen.
Dayton and Faris's most famous film up to this point is 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. Couple that with the fact that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's CV includes The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire and you'd be correct in assuming that Battle of the Sexes is less hard hitting political satire and more acceptable date night fodder. A few laughs, a few tears, some genuinely tense moments, and a feel good factor to warm even the coldest of hearts. It's a consoling arm round the shoulder rather than a wagging finger in one's face and it's all the better for it.
We begin with Billie Jean (Emma Stone) and founder of World Tennis, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) getting in a stand off with old school sexist and partriarchal promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the fact that female tennis players are being paid only an eighth of the money the men get. With Kramer unwilling to redress this, Heldman, King, and eight other leading female tennis players break away from the establishment to form their own circuit, the Virginia Slims, for women only.
For the first half of the film the action switches between Billie Jean King's hectic life at the top of her game to Bobby Riggs, a retired pro frustrated at the boredom of life away from the spotlight and battling, unsuccessfully, his overwhelming compulsion to gamble. You can tell it's the seventies by the voice of Richard Nixon on television, the shit brown furniture of Riggs's office, and by the fact that gropey 'unwanted hugs' seem to pass without mention from anyone.
Riggs, essentially an overgrown child, is equal parts loved and tolerated by his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). She despairs of him, she dumps him, but she keeps coming back to him because he's essentially a lovable rogue. Although he clearly has some chauvinistic tendencies the line that most neatly encapsulates and defines his character is the one he delivers at the press conference before the big match when he claims he's "putting the show back into chauvinism".
At heart he's a hustler and this male chauvinist pig schtick is just an angle, a way to make some money and keep him in the spotlight. Billie Jean King knows this but she's a much more secretive, serious character and she's got enough going on in her own life as it is.
On the court, her rival, the phenomenal Margaret Court has overtaken her at the top of the women's game and off the court she's starting to fall in love with another woman, her hairdresser Marilyn played by British actor Andrea Riseborough. A lesbian romance would be scandalous enough in the era but it's further complicated by the fact that Billie Jean is already married. To Larry, a handsome and solid man whose quiet supportive nature appears almost anachronistic in the decade of dolly birds, leering, and locker room banter about bra burning.
As both King's and Riggs's complicated internal lives are played out circumstances edge us closer and closer to the big match. In the first battle of the sexes Riggs takes on, and easily defeats, a clearly flustered Court. Court may be King's equal physically but it's in the mind games where King is stronger. She knows she simply has to beat Riggs or never hear the end of it.
So Billie Jean trains and she trains hard. Montages of her out jogging and hitting balls late into the night are contrasted with those of Riggs larking about with sheep, having pool parties, and playing tennis in fancy dress outfits. He's taking his opponent for granted and his choosing to wear a heavily sponsored Sugar Daddy (a candy bar) jacket that limits his movement and makes him sweat profusely in the Texan heat seems equally ill advised.
Emma Stone is great as Billie Jean King. She manages to convey the subtle nuances of someone torn between a man, a woman, and a sport with just a pensive glance or a furrowed brow. Steve Carell has the advantage of even looking like Bobby Riggs. He's absolutely the right actor for this role. His startled face, his weird hair, and his tiggerish manner all seem to suggest perfect casting.
The supporting cast are superb too. Riseborough and Austin Stowell (as Larry) play King's alternate love interests as kindly and concerned for Billie Jean. It's remarkable how civilized they manage to be in each other's company even when the penny drops as to what's actually happening. In one heartfelt exchange on a hotel forecourt Larry tells Marilyn something she already knows, that neither of them will ever be Billie Jean's true love. Tennis will always hold that distinction.
Sarah Silverman is good in a role that doesn't ask much of her other than to imagine what a seventies Sarah Silverman would be like, Elisabeth Shue manages to imbue both patience and dignity into the trope of the long suffering wife, Alan Cumming gets to camp it up fabulously as fashion designer and King confidante Ted Tinling, and, on the circuit, Natalie Morales plays former US Open double finalist Rosie Casals as a cute, but no-nonsense, advocate of women's liberation both in sport and in the wider world. She's great.
In some ways Jessica McNamee's Margaret Court is more the real baddie than Riggs. A conservative heterosexual whose motherhood stands in stark contrast to her fellow professionals, she never seems to fully get behind the women's tour and it's suggested she's only joined it for mercenary reasons. It seems likely that Court's rather unpleasant character has been incorporated into the story to punish her for her rather unpleasant views on homosexuality which came to light when she wrote a letter, earlier this year, to a Perth periodical protesting Qantas Airways decision to become a corporate sponsor of same sex marriage and threatening to boycott the carrier. Of course it's possible, even likely, that Court always held these 'Christian' views but vile as they're understood by most to be now it seems likely that forty plus years ago she'd have not been alone in holding, or expressing, such sentiment.
It's a minor, absolutely titchy, complaint in a film that has its heart, undoubtedly, in the right place. The soundtrack makes brilliant use of Elton John's Rocket Man, Hugh Masekela's Grazing in the Grass, and Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells, the tennis scenes, although appearing incredibly slow to those of us used to the modern game, are so thrilling that I nearly applauded one particularly impressive drop shot (the girl sat two seats away from me did), and the skilful way the two narratives weave themselves effortlessly together all make Battle of the Sexes a film that manages to be simultaneously historically illuminating and great fun.
People always told me be careful of what you do but I'm very glad I made the trip out to see this movie. Tennis matches always start with love but this managed to sustain it for a full two hours and on that rather soppy note - new balls please!