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29 September 2019

Battle of the Sexes

USA: 2017

Director: Jonathan Dayton                                           122 Minutes

 Cert. 12A                  


Inspired by the 1973 exhibition match between former men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs and the (then) current women’s number one, Billie Jean King, Battle of the Sexes tells us next to nothing about tennis, but contrives to say a fair amount about gender discrimination and homophobia in the guise of a feelgood comedy.

Produced by Danny Boyle and with a screenplay by Simon (The Full Monty) Beaufoy, but directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the movie begins with King, the reigning women’s champ, splitting from the National Tennis League in a dispute over pay disparities: women are offered one eighth of the prize money awarded to their male counterparts.

Joined by 10 of her colleagues, King commits to a series of breakaway tournaments across the US, 'The Virginia Slims Tour'. Meanwhile retired, bored, 55-year-old men’s champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has an inspiration: a Him vs Her match to restore the natural order of things.

Riggs is the movie’s best surprise, an inveterate gambler and showman whose braggadocio is seemingly modelled on Muhammad Ali and whose caricature chauvinism is all about the hype. Carell gives us plenty to like: Bobby’s a fun-loving, overgrown boy who can’t rein himself in (in a bravura scene, he leads a Gamblers Anonymous meeting astray by suggesting their problem isn’t gambling but losing).

On the other side of the net, Stone proves a good fit for the nerdy and earnest, bespectacled Billie Jean. Initially disdainful of Riggs’ offer, she is compelled to change her mind after longtime rival Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) takes the bait, and loses humiliatingly.

The supporting cast is excellent, and a delicately handled lesbian romance with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) adds another layer of emotional complexity to the piece. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers eschew the expected matrimonial showdown for something a little less obvious, a kind of unspoken acceptance.

Tom Charity  BFI


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