Regular contributor Ben Cherry reviews Battle of the Sexes, showing in the PAC cinema until Wednesday 17 January. Book your tickets early to avoid missing out!
Gender equality is an ongoing issue that is sadly relevant in today’s society. When it comes to Hollywood and other media forms there has been a lot of coverage over the gender pay gap between male and female actors, presenters etc. Much like her character in Battle of the Sexes Emma Stone has campaigned for equal pay over the past few years. Despite being the highest paid actress in 2017; she earned $42 million less than the highest paid actor, Mark Wahlberg who has starred in some questionable films the last ten years. The latest Transformers film springs to mind.
Gender pay gaps are one of the many topics Battle of the Sexes explores during its two hour running time. It covers gender stereotypes in sports where the males are supposed to be very macho and ‘alpha’ and the females are not seen as ‘professional’ athletes. The film also shows the issues within the LGBT community during the seventies which are still pretty relevant today. The film deals with some heavy themes but it is surprisingly light and often very funny and it utilises its backdrop perfectly.
The backdrop is tennis. Films about tennis do not have the greatest of reputations. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is 2003’s Wimbledon which was a pretty forgettable romantic comedy. However Battle of the Sexes does what most great sport movies do and makes the actual sport the least important aspect of the story. Rocky and Raging Bull are great because it tells stories of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. The actual outcome of the boxing matches is almost inconsequential compared to the character’s personal journey. The personal journeys of Billie-Jean King (Emma Stone) and the outlandish Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the back bone of the drama.
The film is based on true events and the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match of 1973 is one of the most famous tennis matches of all time. Bobby Riggs portrayed here by a scene stealing Steve Carell is bored and wants to break the cycle of his professional retirement and wants to challenge the number one female tennis player for a one-off exhibition match. The number one at the time is Billie-Jean King, who is very vocal in her ambitions to gain equal pay for her fellow tennis players and break the social stigma that women are seen as inferior to men at sports.
The film is directed by husband and wife team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame. I didn’t know this prior to watching Battle of the Sexes and was curious to know who it was directed by to see if there was a gender bias. Having a male and female perspective is essential to tell the story and gives the film more authenticity. In fact when I watched the trailer, it seemed like Steve Carell would be playing a very over-the-top male chauvinist who is offensively sexist to the point of being ridiculous. Thankfully Carell’s portrayal of Riggs has much more depth and reveals a rather sad man whose best years are behind him. It appears Riggs isn’t the raving alpha sexist that the media circus makes him out to be.
Much like the directors’ previous work the film has attracted an amazing cast. Both Emma Stone and Steve Carell are continuing their career highs by bringing their real life characters vividly to the screen. Stone has the hardest role out of the two and King’s affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett, is a big part of the story. The affair which would not have been accepted back in 1973 threatens to end Billie-Jean King’s career and her inner torment is beautifully realised by Stone, who is one of the best actors working today. The supporting cast are also solid. It’s always nice to see Bill Pullman not fight aliens although his character is particularly loathsome, but it is Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, one of King’s chief supporters who almost runs away with the film.
By the end, the fabled ’73 match is a tense watch if you are unaware of the outcome, especially as the outcome means so much more than your usual tennis match. The story tells vital, relatable issues which are frighteningly still pertinent today. Despite the heavy topics it is joy to watch and the two stars, like their tennis counterparts, are at the top of their game here.