THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES – Directed by Jonathon Dayton (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE). Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Stowell, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming.
This true, throwback tale from 1973 is amazingly well-suited for our times and perfectly timed for our nation -right now– and needs to be told. 29-year-old Billie Jean King (Stone) is at the top of her game as the world’s #1 female tennis player and is just realising that she prefers girls to boys.
Indignant about the financial raw deal –women players were being paid only 1/7th the prizemoney of their male counterparts (…and, ladies, has that issue ever been really addressed…?) Billie Jean teams up with friend and backer Gladys (Silverman) to form an independent women’s tennis league – and the Virginia Slims competition was born.
When Billie Jean falls for her hair dresser (Riseborough) during the competition, it is a distraction exploited by wily Australian star Margaret Court, allowing her to topple King and become the new #1.
Enter the roguish hustler and former male champion, Bobbie Riggs (Carell). Instead of a career comeback, Riggs decides to generate some publicity, by surfing the wave of sexual politics and billing himself as a male chauvinist pig and challenging Court to a match. This begins the first of only two “Battle of The Sexes”, which he easily wins.
What follows is the buildup to the historic King – Riggs match and how it played itself out. While Billie Jean’s husband, Larry (Stowell), is nothing shy of a real-life saint and Stone is an unquestionably wonderful actor, I think Steve Carell steals the show (just a little) in his portrayal of Riggs, that talented, larger than life showman exploiting the prejudices of his time to turn some coin and extend his career long after it should have faded.
This film isn’t just humorous and entertaining, it is also a precious piece of our collective history. But, not just that: it is a touchstone in the still ongoing struggle for the rights of women to an equality they are long overdue.
And, in this benighted, divided time, where prejudice and discrimination are euphemised as mere “preference”, it is likewise a rally cry for the non-hetero community who, in an enlightened future age, will not need to beg for legal recognition or an equality that will be unquestioned. In harking back 50 years to the 70s, the film offers historically clear evidence of the archaic chauvinism still alive and well in our civilisation today, oinking its way along the corridors of power.
NOTES: In the film and very interesting in light of her clear and present anti-gay stance during the current Australian marriage equality ballot, Margaret Court is portrayed -even in her youth- as something of a religious fundamentalist, critical of King’s sexuality and kneeling before the patriarchy that is too often still extolled in Christian and other religions.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 – REVIEWED BY: Michael Bazeley