Issue 131:2017 11 30: Battle of the sexes (Adam McCormack)

30 November 2017

Battle of the Sexes

A film by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Star Rating: ***

Women’s professional tennis has come a long way.  In the early 1970’s the prize money available to women at USLTA events was a mere fraction of that paid to the men, and in 1972 Billie Jean King only got 60% of the prize money won by Stan Smith at Wimbledon.  They were part of the same events yet were seen as a pleasant sideshow.  That they now receive the same rewards as men is partly down to the stance taken by Billie Jean King and her fellow stars of the period, and Battle of the Sexes tells their story.  However, the film goes way beyond that, by examining the ingrained level of chauvinism in sport, as well as the difficulties of being gay and in the public eye.

Having taken the bold stance of breaking away from the USLTA with their own tournament (bravely sponsored by Virginia Slims – an illustration that the connotations of tobacco sponsorship of sport were not all bad) in protest at the huge gender pay gap, the women are presented with the opportunity of furthering their cause by an outlandish challenge from former men’s Grand Slam winner Bobby Riggs.  Riggs is an out-and-out chancer, addicted to gambling and showmanship.  55 years old, he sees the opportunity to raise his profile by asserting the dominance of men and, having beaten world No.1 Margaret Court he challenges King to a tennis match.  Steve Carrell’s performance as Riggs is full of humour and bravura.  While professing to be a male chauvinist he comes across as anything but, as he tries to win back the wife who has thrown him out for his gambling. The real chauvinists here are the old guard of the USLTA, with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) thoroughly dismissive of the importance of the women’s game.  This may be a little hard on Kramer, who played a major part in the development of Open Tennis overall.  The film is also quite hard on Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is an easy target having been more recently vilified for her views on LGBT rights in Australia.

Emma Stone undoubtedly looks the part of Billie Jean King, having perfected the tennis player’s economical gait, and King’s calm and steely reserve.  She helps us realise just how far the sport has progressed, not just in equal pay, but also in the acceptance of an athlete’s sexuality.  In hiding her relationship with her hairdresser she does not fool her dress designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) or her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), who is not about to slaughter the golden goose.  The questionable areas of the film are the presentation of all this as effectively bringing about equal pay (that is a much more recent event, and arguably has not yet properly been achieved – the end of season major ATP event at the O2 still only features the top 8 male players for example) and in the needless lecture from Tinling about this not being the right time to come out, which risks insulting the intelligence of the audience. These are, however, relatively minor concerns in a film that is both genuinely funny and moving.


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