By Jack Dignan
Little Miss Sunshine rocked my world. I remember watching it for the first time, the morning after returning home from an American trip a few years back. I was jet lagged and incapable of sleeping, awake since before 4am in the morning. With nothing else to do, I popped my recently purchased Little Miss Sunshine movie into the blu-ray player, and my mind was blown. That film is utterly fantastic, and the perfect type of movie for the situation I found myself in. Once I love a film, I’m on board with the filmography of everyone involved, through rain, hail or shine. So when husband and wife directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were announced for this film, it instantly became a must see.
The true story behind Battle of the Sexes wasn’t one I was familiar with prior to the release of this film. If you asked me a year ago who Billy Jean King was, I could only give you my best guess. But Billy Jean King changed the face of tennis. It was 1973, and Billy Jean (portrayed here by Emma Stone) was the number one tennis player in the world, prepping for a self-run tour that allowed women an equal share of the winnings in comparison to the men’s league, who, at the time, were getting paid eight times more (a problem still present today). Times needed to change. Billy Jean was doing the best she could to make that happen.
While going through his routine duties at his office day job, ex-tennis legend and known chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) hears of Billy Jean’s success, and it ignites in him a fierce rekindling with the sport. He wants to prove to the world that men are better than women, and so he puts Billy Jean up to the challenge of competing in a five-set match of tennis. It’s a match the world has been waiting for, with publicity dubbing it as ‘The Battle of the Sexes.’ Through it, history was made. The film brings to light the inhumanity of sexism, homophobia and the over-blown male ego, telling a story that’ll leave a lingering smile on your face.
At their core, sports movies are all the same. They’re structurally identical, with only a few exceptions here and there, such as Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby, a personal favourite of mine. It’s why practically every Rocky movie follows a replicated story arc. The plot for Battle of the Sexes isn’t an intricate, unpredictable ride with twists and turns, but it doesn’t try and hide that. Even the concluding tennis match, as suspenseful and thrilling as it may be, feels open about where it’s going to end up. Don’t go into this movie expecting to be surprised. But it’s not about that. It’s about the thematic issues that deal with gender, love and equality for all.
Love conquers. Love is powerful. With a world so full of hate and violence, Battle of the Sexes couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time. It means no harm and feels contextually relevant, allowing for a perfect escapism from looming terrors. Even with somewhat mature themes sewn in, its content is very accessible for adolescents and above, giving them an appreciation of this game changing historical event and an exposure to the negativity of sexism. Now more than ever, we should be striving for equality, and Battle of the Sexes, while raising nothing you haven’t heard before, does an excellent job at kicking its point home.
Emma Stone and Steve Carell, previously appearing together in the fantastic and even more delightful Crazy Stupid Love, bring their award winning talents to the sports biopic in the best way possible. Stone is still rolling off of her Oscar winning success earlier in the year, delivering yet another fantastic and grounded performance. Her filmography continues to expand in all the right ways, and the make up and costuming have done a terrific job at replicating the real-life look of Stone’s character. It gives an immersive retro feel to the whole thing, backed up by the camera work and visually indistinguishable from that of the real time period.
Stone’s character may be easy to latch onto, but it’s Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs who’s the real troublemaker. Riggs is a fundamentally flawed individual. He’s armed with a gambling addiction and known as a hustler, so much so that his marriage and family life is beginning to crumble around him. What’s strange but welcomed about Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay is that he doesn’t depict Riggs as the villain he so easily could’ve. He’s able to humanize him and pull the mask off of the act Riggs is constantly putting on. He may have meant some of the things he said, I can’t prove he didn’t, but you don’t deliberately go around with a shirt that says, “I am a male chauvinist pig” if you truly 100% mean it. To him, it’s all about the money.
There’s a good fifteen minutes of sub-plot that could easily be shaved off of the running time for Battle of the Sexes, but for what we’ve got, the final product remains an entertaining sports biopic with equal heart, humour and importance. It’s no Little Miss Sunshine, but it doesn’t try to be. This is a film in an entirely different realm, but one you definitely don’t want to miss.
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