08 October 2017

London Film Festival 2017 Part II: Battle of the Sexes

My second — and sadly final — 2017 London Film Festival screening was for Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's Battle of the Sexes. The 'it's not really about tennis' story of a 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and former tennis champion turned hustler and self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs.

Many of the cast and crew were out on the red carpet on Leicester Square last night, as well as assorted ball boys and girls and other tennis-related paraphernalia. I spotted Dayton and Faris posing together first, and then Emma Stone and later Elisabeth Shue and Heather Watson. Alas, I was ushered on into the cinema before Billie Jean King herself appeared.

Once festival director Clare Stewart got things started, however, we got to hear from various actors and crew members. Producers Danny Boyle and Christian Colson, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and both directors came onstage to talk about their work on the film — and how they were all terrified that King would hate the end result.; "we wanted to do her justice," Faris explained. As it turned out, they did and King was delighted to be depicted by Emma Stone, urging the audience members to keep fighting for equality and freedom.

And so to the film... I wasn't aware of the titular battle until I started reading about the film and although I tried to avoid finding out the outcome, I didn't succeed. This didn't really matter, though, because as the directors, Boyle, Beaufoy and Stone all noted, Battle of the Sexes is much more of a love story with elements of political drama than a sports movie. As the film opens, Billy Jean King (Stone) has just won a tennis championship but finds out that at another upcoming tournament, the men's champion will receive a prize eight times greater than the female winner. She and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), a fellow advocate of the women's tennis game, protest to Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who has just issued a press release for the US Lawn Tennis Association about this news, but he doesn't see the problem. "The men are more exciting to watch, faster, stronger... It's just biology," he says.

King decides to found a separate Women's Tennis Association, signing up some of her fellow female players, including Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) and Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), and creating a women's only tennis circuit, to Kramer's consternation. King's husband Larry (Austin Stowell) remains at home for much of the tour to avoid distracting her, and one day she meets and soon forms a friendship with hair stylist Marilynn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough; in reality, Barnett was King's personal secretary). Before long, her feelings for Marilynn develop into something more and the two become lovers, despite her own anguish and warnings from some of her friends, including the players' wardrobe master (the ever-wonderful Alan Cumming).

Meanwhile, after enjoying much success as a tennis star in his youth, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has fallen into a cycle of hustling and gambling. He wins a Rolls Royce, which turns out to be the final straw that leads his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) to kick him out. He needs one big, final gambit to win her back and soothe his aching ego, and decides that playing King in a televised tennis match is the way to do this. In 1973, King was 29 and at the top of her game, while Riggs was 55 and no longer quite as good as he would like to think. King refuses to accept the challenge for some time — she sees it for the spectacle that it is. But eventually, she gives in when she realises that it may be her best opportunity to prove not that women can be as good at tennis as men, but that women deserve to be treated fairly and equally. Will it all backfire or will the time Riggs dedicates to being parodically sexist, arrogant and obnoxious prevent him from practising enough?

I enjoyed Battle of the Sexes — it is entertaining and uplifting, and while Stone's performance as King stood out, Carell deserves kudos for being quite so pitiable. It's Pullman's Kramer who seems the more insidious character, however; as King points out during the film, Riggs is just putting on an act for the attention, but Kramer genuinely seems to believe that women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom and sees King and her 'women's lib' compatriots to be a danger for the game of tennis. I think the film would have been stronger had it been a broader biopic of King, focusing less on the pantomimish Riggs, whose story consumed all too much of the film. The best scenes were between King and Barnett, and the subtler scenes between King and her husband. Although Larry tells Marilynn that they are both just sideshows and that "tennis is her first love," actually, it's her love for these two important people in her life that comes through most strongly.

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