Battle of the Sexes, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, is uplifting, full of heart, and will certainly gain a few well-earned laughs from you. The greatest achievement of this film is that it takes the time to really explore its varied characters, and because of that, it ended up feeling like a more complete experience. Coming from the perspective of the characters first and then letting the story build up around them, both benefited my connection to the people who mattered and led into me being invested in their story. And so, it’s thanks to patience and some noticeable attention to detail (of many elements) that the film has you feeling like a part of the journey, throughout. Let’s bring this introduction to a close and start exploring all that, Battle of the Sexes has to offer, shall we?
Based up the true story, we follow, Billie Jean King – portrayed by Emma Stone – who in the 70’s was the women’s world number one in tennis, but she also set out to gain equality for all women in the sport. She and her fellow women tennis players made great strides, but an exhibition match saw their hopes possibly dashed. Billie Jean King had to step-up and face, Bobby Riggs – played by Steve Carrell – a former tennis champion who had many prestigious wins to his name. Unfortunately, his opinions of where women belong and what they were capable of, left much to be desired. The two went onto face one another in what was referred to as: ‘The Tennis Battle of the Sexes’. The film tells the story of when the tennis world was forever changed.
With a film like this, a problem that can usually arise is that it is so focused on telling its story, that it will usually sacrifice the characters in service of tackling the entire story, moment-by-moment. This means jumping indiscriminately from one point in time to another, making sure to touch upon the most integral points of the historical events. Now, this does result in a full picture of the events that took place, but it also results in quite a disjointed feel to the characters; where the people at the centre of it feel more like storytelling tools, rather than individuals that were actually a part of it.
This is not a problem for Battle of the Sexes. It puts it characters first. We are given quite a bit of time with Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and many others who were at the centre of the story. Whether it is glimpses into specific aspects of their lives, or deep explorations of important elements that highlight who they were as people – we really get the chance to understand and form a bond with many of the people at the heart of the story. That bond becomes integral to forming and then holding onto our connection to the story and our want to see it through to its conclusion.
Before Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs are even somewhat close to having their now famous match, we are given ample opportunity to be with them as individuals. Learning what drives them; what it is that brings them to the point where they face off against one another; their influences, their failings; I understood who they were, and I cared about what would become of their legacy in the sport of tennis… and beyond.
I can’t stress just how integral (and well done) the handling of the characters was in this film. Not only the main ones, but many of the secondary ones as well. They play a part in building the film out into more than just Billie and Bobby. They were just as much a part of the story and without them, it would have been a very shallow telling of what happened during that time. It all helped to pull me in and want to participate in the watching of the film – never allowing my attention to wane, and I never wanting it too.
Which brings me to the primary focus of the film: Billie Jean King. First off, Emma Stone’s performance is great. Stone really does seem to embody the character; not only physically, but from the little mannerisms in her personality. It’s a full-bodied effort from her; one where I early on stopped seeing the actress and only saw the character (something I haven’t always found to be the case when watching Emma Stone on-screen).
As I’ve made very clear already, the film allows a lot of time for the individuals on-screen to make their presence known. The time the film spends with Billie Jean allowed me to really get to know and understand who she was. And I think the best part of that, was a lot of it was off the tennis court. I was expecting a film where I saw multiple tennis matches from Billie’s career, but there is actually surprisingly very little tennis playing in the film (something I was relieved by, despite the fact I enjoy watching tennis). I wanted to know who Billie Jean King was without a racket in her hand and the film more than gave me that.
But the aspect to her that I found myself at all times engaged by – and perhaps the aspect that the film puts the most focus on – was the difficult love triangle that Billie Jean found herself in. Love triangles are hard enough as it is, but for Billie Jean King, she was in love with her husband, Larry King – portrayed by Austin Stowell – and her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett – portrayed by Andrea Riseborough. The moments between, Billie Jean and Marilyn are some of the loveliest moments in the film – particularly in the way in which they are shot and edited.
They felt almost like the happiest, most wonderful dream. These scenes brought so much calming joy to the film. I loved every second of their times interacting, as it always resulted in something meaningful. Whether it was the first time they met – which was goosebumps inducing, because of the tone of the scene – or it was the more challenging moments in their extremely taboo relationship; there was always a genuineness to it – a heart that made the film shine with a touching loveliness. It was during these moments that I felt the film really shone.
It all served to make me care about Billie Jean King more. Not only is she standing up and fighting entrenched sexism, but we bear witness to the beginnings of her fight for equal rights for homosexuals. In the 70’s, those must have felt like two of the most impossible battles and could surely only bring ruin to your life, but that didn’t stop her. She alone is a fascinating, inspiring person to have lead your film. Shining a light on her and her story is something Battle of the Sexes did a brilliant job of, and for that, I applaud it.
But despite what the film tackles, it isn’t one that takes itself too seriously – something I didn’t think would have been possible, when you have someone like Bobby Riggs as part of the story. Steve Carrell was a brilliant choice for this role, that is a fact. Bobby Riggs is one of those larger than life characters who you almost can’t believe is real, and much like how Emma Stone embodies much of Billie Jena King, Steve Carrell is much the same; fully becoming the crazy character that Bobby Riggs’ was.
I can’t imagine someone who better juxtaposes Billie Jean King, than Bobby Riggs; he is the antithesis of her. But interestingly, my ultimate opinion of the man was not what I initially expected it to be. I expected a vile, unlikeable person who I would despise each moment I saw him on-screen, but instead, in a weird sort of way, I pitied him. Bobby Riggs was someone who once had fame, who was on the top of his game and wildly successful, and like most sport stars, it inevitably dwindled away. What seems to drive him in this film is not keeping women down and being the leader of a sexist movement, but rather he just seems cripplingly desperate to have his slice of fame back, and he will literally do or say anything to achieve it.
The more I watched and learned who Bobby Riggs was – the real Bobby Riggs, not the one who appeared in front of the news cameras or in the photo-shoots – I didn’t see a hateful man, I saw a desperate man; one who simply wanted his relevancy back and he saw the gender-based battle of tennis with Billie Jean King as his way of getting that. I don’t believe he believed in the small-minded, incorrect things he said, I think that for him, it was simply a means to an end, which when you consider all that, is just… sad.
So while the film doesn’t allow its story to consume the film, that doesn’t mean that it overlooks it – quite the opposite in fact. I feel the film did a really good job of taking its time and slowly but surely getting to the crucial elements that make up the overall story. Rather than having the plot dictate the telling of the story, it is the perspective of the characters that controls how we are fed the narrative, and I found that to be much more effective. I did after all care about them first and foremost, thus following them into their story was something I was more than happy to do. It is an important story to learn about, of course, and I feel the film did a good job at telling it.
Admittedly, the film does skim over much of the more nuanced detail in Billie Jean’s day-to-day as a tennis player, but putting her at the forefront and giving us the most need-to-know points in the story was for me, much more enjoyable to watch. I felt it delivered a more complete package, as I had just enough context for what was happening, while getting to indulge in all the charactery-goodness of Billie Jean and her friends/competitors.
And what I feel ties the whole film together is how good it looks. The film really captures the look of 1970’s America, and it achieved that in multiple ways. The first being the general look of the film, which if I’m correct, was captured on 35mm – which complimented the look of the time greatly. It also aided the historical aspect of the film, as it was able to cut between actual news footage from the time and the recreated moments for the film and have it look relatively seamless. This aspect alone, really gave the film a look of authenticity and was the one I noticed first, but it wasn’t the only one to reinforce the authentic look.
One that came late on (in terms of when I noticed it) was the actual match between Billie and Bobby. The entire match is shot from the same angle as an actual tennis match, and while we do see some aspects of the match that people at the time didn’t (producers in the control booth, or loved ones in the stands) we never see the match in a way that the watchers of the time wouldn’t have. Once again, it adds to the authentic feel of the film. It puts us (the audience) in the same position as everyone else watching, almost making it feel like we’re there experiencing it like everyone else did. It’s these little touches that always stood out to me, and I really appreciated the effort that clearly went into doing it.
The only choice with the camera that I wasn’t always a fan of: were when it would put the camera as close to the characters as seemingly possible. It took what were intimate moments and made them feel unnecessarily claustrophobic. I didn’t feel it made sense in the context of some of the scenes to be as tight on the characters as we were – I certainly was able to take in every little detail of the actor’s performances, but for me it created an odd tone for the scene that I found quite distracting. It’s strange, because there was obviously deliberate thought from cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, as to where the camera should exist within a scene and it for the most part made sense, but in these moments, it just didn’t (for me).
And so now, I want to close out by heaping some praise upon production designer, Judy Becker and her team, who did a fantastic job of nailing the look of the film. The outfits, the set design, the props, the hair (oh that 70’s hair), etc. This film screams of the time and it simply just looks perfect. It’s an aspect that can sometimes be overlooked, but understanding and creating the look to a film through these integral elements really does bring a film together and as I watched this film, it was something I was forever noticing. Beyond everything, this is a wonderful film to simply look at.
I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m recommending, Battle of the Sexes. I had my reservations about this film before going in, but they were quickly squashed, and I soon sat back and enjoyed a thoroughly enjoyable film. If you find the time, you should definitely go see this one.
I’d love to know your opinions of this film and what you thought of my review of it, so please leave any thoughts you have in the comments section down below. Also, it would be great if you could give both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings – a follow. Now I’ll bring my ramblings to a close by thanking you for taking the time to read my review and I hope you have a fantastic day.