Battle Of The Sexes (UK / USA / 12A / 121 mins)

Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Alan Cumming.


The Plot: It’s the 1970s in America and equality between men and women is still something to be fought for, including in the sporting arena. Ace women’s tennis champion Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) objects to the fact that men are paid 8 times as much as women to compete. Tennis sporting body representative and commentator Jack (Bill Pullman) thinks it’s just biology and that women can’t handle the pressure. Along with friend Gladys (Sarah Silverman) and other female tennis stars, Billy Jean forms a female splinter group which causes ructions in tennis circles. This draws the attention of showman Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the men’s champion who wants to put the show back in chauvinism. He challenges her to a battle of the sexes on the court. That is, if she can keep her nerve…


The Verdict: Occasionally, a film about another generation comes along which isn’t so much about the past but is really about the present. Given recent discussions on gender pay equality in the film industry, with Emma Stone asking her male co-stars to take the same salary as her, it could also be viewed as a wry commentary on the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, let’s not read too much into it, for that would spoil what is an entertaining sports film fronted by two charismatic characters.


Husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame make good use of Simon Beaufoy’s fine script, setting up these two opposing forces early on. Billy Jean is fleshed out well, making her not so much a firebrand but someone who is clearly unhappy about the sexist attitudes in the tennis world. As she simply points out to Bobby at one point, she’s a tennis player who happens to be a woman. Nothing more. Why should that be regarded as different? The film also explores her developing attraction to hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), sensitively depicted with a more modern touch.


Bobby, on the other hand, is rich but hobbled by a gambling addiction. Supremely confident in himself and his abilities, he outwardly plays the part of a chauvinist but has his own insecurities. Carell is spot-on casting here, making Bobby likeable despite his attitudes. There’s a nice onscreen rapport between Stone and Carell, less like enemies and more like professional rivals who might just be evenly matched on the court. The witty script moves deftly between comedy and drama, with the high stakes involving so much more than winning a trophy. Even if the outcome isn’t a huge surprise, it’s still a tense enough watch as the duo duke it out on the court.


So, it’s game, set, match for Battle Of The Sexes. It’s smart, funny, light, enlightening and even thought-provoking. In the battle of the tennis films this year, Battle Of The Sexes clearly beats Borg vs McEnroe.


Rating: 4 / 5

Review by Gareth O’Connor

Battle of The Sexes
4.0Overall Score
  • emerb

    You probably don’t recall the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs back in 1973 but it was a highly publicized event at the time with over ninety million Americans tuning in to watch it on tv. The match was more of a spectacle and never really about the tennis but rather a crucial social statement about equality, justice, the growth of the women’s liberation movement and an important chapter in sports history. Directing team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan
    Dayton have made previous smart, funny and very enjoyable films such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks” and now, with “The Battle Of The Sexes”, they look set continue their success.

    Emma Stone and Steve Carrell play the two leads in a “Battle of the Sexes” as tennis greats Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King fights hard to hold on to her number 1 ranking and together with World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) leads the way for the female players to break away from the Association of Tennis Professionals when they refuse to raise the ladies’ championship prize to match the men’s. However, internally she’s struggling with guilt over her sexual orientation and when an attractive hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) comes into her life, the spark between them develops into a passion which threatens to end not just King’s marriage to her
    loyal and supportive husband Larry (Austin Stowell), but also her professional
    career and perhaps even women’s tennis. Meanwhile middle aged Riggs is sick of his day job at the company owned by his wealthy father-in-law. His nights are spent gambling with friends, a habit he assures his disapproving wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) he’s given up. He gets the idea to hold a publicity stunt tennis match in which he’ll play on a top-ranked female player. He would be the loud male chauvinistic pig and in his view, when he won, he would prove that the male is the better sex?! It would also give him the chance to be in the spotlight once again as he his best sports years are now well behind him. It’s not until he beats the current women’s No. 1, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), that King is convinced to take him on. “The Battle of the Sexes” tells the story of that wildly hyped nationally televised match and of the events leading up to it. It was a
    spectacle bordering on a cartoonish farce with marching bands and baby pigs but King was determined not to let him turn women’s tennis into a joke. The film captures the big excitement and surprisingly tense match and how important it was for all, everybody cared about the result.

    While neither star bears much of a natural physical resemblance to the characters they’re playing, they undergo a remarkable makeup and wardrobe transformation and the likeness is uncanny (as seen in the final credits). Emma Stone once again proves her worth. She gives a superb portrayal of one of the most focussed and determined athletes/activists in American sports history who is also going though significant personal turmoil as she learns to come to grips with her own sexuality. She managed to hold her own with grace and dignity in
    the midst of what could only be considered a circus. The performance is not only dramatically but also physically compelling, even if the tennis playing has been enhanced by a body double. An Oscar nomination is likely. Steve Carrell is great fun as Bobby Riggs, a former tennis champion but now a middle aged hustler. He’s a goofy and silly clown but not a fool – he’s a shameless self-promoter and gambler in it for himself. In spite of yourself, you can’t help finding him rather lovable and although his comments are appalling, you kind of like him. Carell nails the performance with an uncanny impersonation and brings out all the right qualities in Riggs. Good supporting performances include Alan Cumming as a women’s wardrobe designer who senses King’s sexual issues and offers some comforting words, Sarah Silverman as King’s acid-tongued co-founder of a women’s pro tour and Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ long-suffering wife.

    Whether you’re a fan of tennis or not, whether you know every detail of the momentous 1973 Riggs/King match or not, “The Battle of the Sexes” will not disappoint. It is a thoroughly engaging story, an energetic comedy, an interesting character study, an inspirational sports movie and even an entertaining history lesson. I liked the way the directors cleverly recreated the era – the music,
    costumes, hair, cars are spot on. While there is no doubting that this is enjoyable, smart and light-hearted movie, it’s also an important reminder of the equality and gender issues that are still a huge topic of conversation today. Well worth seeing and likely to be a serious contender come awards season.