Battle of the Sexes – movie review

by Peter Calder / 11 October, 2017
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A real-life drama about a game between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King is an unexpected treat.

To those who remember it, the 1973 tennis match between ageing former men’s champ Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, a woman at the top of her game, was only a showbiz stunt.

But this winning film about the backstory, by the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine, digs down to a richer vein of material. The script, by Brit Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty), makes room for the garish Riggs sideshow, but, helped by Steve Carell’s eerily accurate yet nuanced portrayal, makes it plain that it’s the delusion of a gambling addict who can’t bear being a has-been.

Meanwhile, it never loses sight of the fact that, for King (a wonderful Emma Stone), it was not about a match, but the game. She had been instrumental in setting up a women’s tour in protest at rampant sexism in the sport’s administration, not least in the unequal purses for men and women. Riggs, who exulted in his boorishness (“I want to put the ‘show’ back in ‘chauvinism’,” he said), tried to depict himself as leading a clownish last stand against bra-burning women’s libbers, but in the end, he lost at a game he didn’t even know he was playing.

It’s a bracing reminder of how brave King and her colleagues were, though it doesn’t get too po-faced about it (a chain-smoking Sarah Silverman is great as the group’s mother hen), and it weaves in a love story to add resonance to the sexual politics that is the film’s core business.

That’s quite a lot of freight for a modest indie film to carry, but it does so deftly, creating moments of real magic. The film-makers are good at storytelling with dialogue, but they know when to make the action stop and fall silent. Small moments – the discovery of a brassiere in a hotel bathroom; King’s tears in a locker room – tell us as much as a page of dialogue. An unexpected treat.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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