BFI LFF 2017: Battle of the Sexes (2017)


He was a 55-year old gambling addict. She was a 29-year old who wanted equality. However, when Bobby Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to an exhibition match in 1973, little did they know that it would become a milestone for womens’ tennis.

Directed by Little Miss Sunshine‘s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes follows Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) as she struggles for equality amid the male-dominated world of tennis. However, when former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) offers a $100,000 prize to any female player who can beat him, she decides to accept his challenge.

Over the last year, an increasing number of reports regarding pay equality in the entertainment industry are coming to light. Ranging from the BBC gender pay gap and the fight for equal pay at Wimbledon, it is becoming an increasingly significant issue in modern culture. It is being a heated issue in Hollywood as actresses are now speaking openly about their salary being comparatively lower than their male co-stars.

With Stone recently speaking about her male co-stars’ reduced salaries to ensure equal pay in her previous projects, Battle of the Sexes is socially relevant. As it addresses the gender equality in sports, sexuality, and the gender pay gap, its male characters come back to the same conclusion – that male tennis players are worth more because they are better than women. However, most of the film focuses on the achievements of the female characters.

The film starts with the formation of the  Women’s Tennis Association (led by King), which leads to them being kicked out of the US Tennis Association and them being exempt from major tournaments. Nonetheless, they continue to play and promote their cause. Even the aloof Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) signs up, choosing to support the cause and leaves her baby in the arms of her husband. The whole film promotes an empowering message and only helps the audience root for King even more.

In addition, King’s subplot involving hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) allows the film to extend past its core message of equality. With homosexuality being a taboo subject in the 1970s, Dayton and Faris emphasise the emotional turmoil of King struggling with her feelings for Marilyn, handling it with sensitivity and attention. In addition, Stone and Riseborough’s on-screen chemistry is subtly seductive without being brazen.

Throughout the film, King is shown to be the more composed and determined competitor. She is more driven, more passionate and plays to be recognised in a sport that is seemingly dominated by men. Riggs, on the other hand, sees the match as a scheme to easy money and a return to the spotlight. These different approaches to the match highlight its significance to both parties, as well as their conflicting attitudes to the sport.

In terms of performances, Stone is mesmerising as King and conveys a mature, unwavering determination, while Carrell’s Riggs focuses on the comedy rather than the dramatics.  In addition, supporting characters such as brash Gladys Hedman (Sarah Silverman), Rigg’s frustrated wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and smug, misogynist tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) help bring a sense of sass and snarkiness to the story, thanks to Simon Beaufoy’s sprightly screenplay.

Overall, Battle of the Sexes effectively addresses the issue of equality and with such as a strong lead performance from Stone, it is hard to ignore.


Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Simon Beaufoy (scr.)
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman
Runtime: 121 minutes
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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