Simon Dillon reviews the drama about the 1973 tennis match between world number one Billie Jean King and former champion Bobby Riggs.

Battle Of The Sexes

The famous "Battle of the Sexes" 1973 tennis match between world number one Billie Jean King and former champion Bobby Riggs is dramatised to very agreeable effect in this satisfying drama, co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Featuring outstanding lead performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carrell, I think the film stands a good chance of Oscar nominations all round.

Standing up for equal pay, Billie Jean formed a separate women's tennis tour after being blackballed by the Lawn Tennis Association, and at the same time came to question her sexuality as she slowly fell for hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Sensing an opportunity to bounce back and relive past glories, Bobby Riggs played the part of the male chauvinist, challenging Billie Jean to the titular tennis match. At first she said no, but after world number one Margaret Court lost to Riggs in a similar contest, Billie Jean felt she had no choice but to strike what she hoped would be a blow for equality.

As Billie Jean, Emma Stone is excellent, embodying her character with the expected confidence, focus and vulnerability. But Steve Carrell is equally excellent as Riggs. The film takes great pains to show that his male chauvinist act was essentially theatre, and that gambling problems, feelings of emasculation and his complicated relationship with his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) were much more at the core of his character. Billie Jean's husband Larry (Austin Stowell) is also portrayed very sympathetically, as indeed are most of the characters - save Bill Pullman's Lawn Tennis Association President Jack Kramer, a genuine chauvinist as opposed to Riggs's theatrical hustler, and Jessica McNamee's Margaret Court, who comes off as a prudish bigot.

The film is well directed, with a first-rate screenplay from Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures the 1970s with a real sense of colourful time and place. Certain facts are sugar-coated or overlooked entirely, such as the later toxic fall-out between Billie Jean and Marilyn, which included a suicide attempt and acrimonious lawsuit. However, I can understand why the filmmakers wouldn't want inconvenient facts to get in the way of a good movie.

Also regarding my earlier point about Margaret Court, she is now a Christian (and indeed has her own church and congregation in Australia). As a fellow believer, a part of me wants to kick off about the way she is portrayed in the film, but unfortunately she often comes across unreasonably regarding the issue of homosexuality in real life, so the depiction is probably fair. Don't get me wrong, obviously I defend freedom of belief, and I understand she feels she is standing up for what the Bible says, but I submit that it is possible to hold uncompromising beliefs without coming across in the way she often does (for example, she has suggested that Christmas, Easter and so on are under threat from gay marriage, which is preposterous). Despite Court's views, Billie Jean King has always defended Court's right to disagree with her, and even stood up for her when public opinion suggested a tennis court in Australia named after her should be renamed, in view of Court's stance on gay marriage.

None of the above changes the fact that Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining, well-made film, and well worth a watch. CR

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