Bobby Riggs – the late former tennis champ and chauvinist – could not survive today. If he as much as dared tweet one of his many sexist quips, an avalanche of outraged echo chamber tweets would have come tumbling down on him with such force that he would have had to crawl into a hole to survive! And in this hovel live the rest of his miserable infamous life. How times have changed…
Miserable and infamy are not words you can attach to Riggs. On the contrary he was popular and lived a very colourful life. And most of his fame – partly spawned from his success on the tennis court – was down to his ‘cheeky’ sexist remarks and challenges to female tennis players in order to once and for all determine that men are better/stronger than women. This happened in the 1970s. The world was clearly a very different place.
Battle of the Sexes is a biographical sports film that chronicles the 1973 winner takes all exhibition tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billy Jean King (Emma Stone). Much has been documented about this match. In its time it was the most watched sporting event in history – 90 million viewers worldwide.
The so called snowflake millennials will be scandalised by the antics of Riggs. He relentlessly goads BJK with sexist remarks. At first the women’s champion declines Riggs’ offer. At the same time she has a lot going on in both her professional and personal life.
Not unrelated to Riggs’ machismo challenge is women’s players request to the Lawn Tennis Association – obviously headed by white old men – for equal pay. When the request is turned down, BJK leads a break away women’s association. But it doesn’t stop there. In her personal life she’s struggling with her sexuality. Her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) is on a seduction offensive. The married BJK is torn. Coming out as a lesbian could spell the death knell for her career.
Riggs is equally struggling with his own demons. His tennis heyday is over. Now he is a 55 year old compulsive gambler and emasculated husband. This itself is a revelation of the two faces of Riggs. Who exactly is he: The loudmouth chauvinist in public or the domesticated husband?
On match day, the arena is packed. While Riggs presents BJK with a bouquet, she in turn reciprocates with a piglet. All in good humour. It is an affirmation of Riggs’ famous remark: “If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be number one pig.”
Battle of the Sexes is a funny, joyous and well-made film that delicately handles heavy themes. The co-directors of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – makers of Little Miss Sunshine – have great form in handling sensitive subject matters in a light, blissful, feel-good manner.
The performances are first rate all round. Emma Stone is brilliant as Billy Jean King. She approaches her character with a combination of stoicism and vulnerability that instantly makes her relatable.
The role of Bobby Riggs is one that Steve Carell has been auditioning for all his life. Carell presents Riggs as the affable, if sometimes bumbling, avuncular jester. He portrays Riggs in a way that the audience, rather than loathing this sexist pig, actually sympathises with him. He makes it look like even he does not believe the hurtful things that he’s saying about women. It’s all for the fun of it. This is exactly how Riggs was able to get away with it.
The idea that most of this film is fiction is open to debate. But this is a superb film. You should see it if only for its relevance to modern times.