What could be more satisfactory than watching a charismatic person embody another charismatic person?! (Many things I imagine but that is not the point here…) This is the case for Emma Stone and Billie Jean King who in the Battle of the Sexes found one another and a strong and emotive performance was born. Apart from a successfully achieved – however unlikely – physical resemblance (apart from the dentalized lisp they coincidentally share…), Emma Stone captures the speech patterns, the forward-leaning walking style and all the traits of King’s introvert nature. She is mesmerising and powerful, she fills the screen with her talent and focus.
Steve Carell gives us Bobby Riggs, the man who had a very relevant for his time (unfortunately, for ours too…) and showbizzie idea to put a feminist to fight on court a ‘sugar daddy’ chauvinist pig. Carell is excellent at adding layers to an otherwise ridiculous persona; like Stone, he does a great job at presenting a most realistic version of his character, capturing Bobby’s caricature traits, his quick and pompous talking style and his social talents that extend from the bets on court he sets with friends to the imaginative games he improvises to entertain his son. However, Carell doesn’t leave it there, he delves deeper into Bobby’s psyche and delivers a more personal portrait, that of a man who faces addiction, struggles with a dull routine that sets him even further away from a stardom he feels he still deserves, and who is in denial when things get tough.
Emma Stone is equally exquisite in her portrait of this great woman and athlete. She is playing in many courts so to speak, as she is in a fight for gender equality first in the sport but then also, this extends to the American society at large. In addition, she is facing an immense challenge in preparation for the game against Riggs and on the day of course and finally, she is discovering her sexuality.
Andrea Riseborough is a lovely hairdresser, Marilyn who becomes Bille Jean’s first female lover. The scenes they share are exceptionally sweet and intoxicating thanks to their chemistry and the numbing close-ups. Numbing and investigative in the sense that this way of shooting puts us in the place of these women, admiring each other, carefully observing every little trait they have, the smiles, the eyes, the shyness, and the words that carefully and slowly come out. There is something precious and overly personal in capturing their relationship in romantic and dreamy shots.
Other memorable mentions from a cast perspective; Sarah Silverman is incredibly powerful and effortlessly funny as Gladys Heldman, the tennis promoter who fought alongside King and her fellow tennis pros against the male tennis establishment. Alan Cumming, a stylist whose warmth and words infested with meaning created some delightfully wise moments on screen.
Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband is played by Austin Stowell who is a very pretty face but not just that. It is thanks to the hotel scene where he has an unexpected encounter with lingerie that we understand how good an actor he is; the stillness of his eyes, the confusion that gives its place to bitterness and the process of making a crucial decision for his marriage, to swallow his words or act on them. His performance is transparent to all these thoughts and feelings and the scene is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally charged of the film alongside with the long-anticipated match and the first encounters of Billie and Marilyn.
The film gave room for powerful performances, but it is not a very good one. It could have benefited by being 30 minutes shorter and by better editing in the sense that transitions between the parallel narratives disempowered the tension of the storytelling. In reality, Battle of the Sexes seems to be treating the events with a lightness that does not do credit to the battle in question.
Somehow the film puts a veil on the darkness and cruelty of that time, focusing on the superficial elements of the actual show and not gazing at the emotional effect discrimination places in our protagonists’ hearts. Also, it felt as Bobby’s vulgarity was overshadowed by his portrayal as a harmless clown, which could not have been possibly the case. A man capable of such grotesque behaviour is imbecile and harmful as he accredits similar views held by other members of the society as we’ve recently witnessed with Donald Trump in the US elections for instance. Battle of the sexes has a documentary feel and a soundtrack that easily transports us in the ‘70s however, only performances and certain lines give the piece tension and thrill with the rest of it feeling like a silent and passive depiction of events or to be more accurate, the backstories of THE event.
After the film you might check the original game, look up the amazing Billie Jean King, try to imitate Sarah Silverman’s accent and play some tennis because it is an amazing and thrilling sport. Also, man or woman you might take a few seconds to go through your most unprocessed, instinctive thoughts and pick those that have some Bobby in them and then make sure you understand why they’re there and how you get read of them. However, if you can’t find anything wrong with them then, don’t waste a minute longer and go see a therapist immediately! Finally, you might find yourself wondering how honest you are about your true desires and what are YOU going to do to change the things that matter?