Tennis and sex, but without the grunting.


Here’s a good test of someone’s age…. ask the question “Billie-Jean?”. Millennials will probably come back with “Huh?”; those in their 30’s or 40’s might come back with “Michael Jackson!”; those older than that will probably reply “King!”.

“Battle of the Sexes” (which I just managed to catch before it left cinemas) tells the true-life story of US tennis star Billie-Jean King (Emma Stone, “La La Land“). The year is 1973 and Billie-Jean is riding high as the Number 1 female tennis player. She is a feminist; she is married (to hunk Larry – no not that one – King played by Austin Stowell (“Whiplash“, “Bridge of Spies“)); …. and she is also attracted to women, not something she has yet acted on. That all changes when her path crosses with LA-hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, “Birdman“, “Oblivion”).

Strong arm tactics… she’ll never be able to do the washing up after that. Emma Stone as Billie-Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.

But this is a side story:  the main event is a bet made by aging ex-star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher“); that – even at his age – as a man he could beat the leading female tennis player of the day.

And the real thing… Billie Jean-King and Bobby Riggs at a press conference.

The film is gloriously retro, starting with the old-school 20th Century Fox production logo. And it contains breathtakingly sexist dialogue by writer Simon Beaufoy (“Everest“, “The Full Monty”). Surely men couldn’t have been so crass and outrageous in the 70’s?  Sorry ladies, but the answer is yes, and the film is testament to how far women’s rights have come in 50 years.  

Stepping out on a limb. The ladies pay a dollar to start their own tennis association, putting them on a collision course with the LTA and Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman).

This is a tour de force in acting from both Emma Stone and Steve Carell, particularly the latter: a scene where Carell tries to re-engage with his estranged wife (Elisabeth Shue, “Leaving Las Vegas”) is both nuanced and heart-breaking. Stone’s performance is also praiseworthy, although it feels slightly less so as it is an impersonation of a (relatively) well-known figure: this is extremely well-studied though, right down to her strutting walk around the court which I had both forgotten and was immediately again reminded of. 

One of my favourite movie awards are the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) “cast” awards that celebrate ensemble performances, and here is a film that should have been nominated (it unfortunately wasn’t). Andrea Riseborough; Natalie Morales (as fellow tennis player Rosie Casals); comedian Sarah Silverman (“A Million Ways to Die in the West“), almost unrecognisable as the brash publicist Gladys Heldman; Bill Pullman as LTA head Jack Kramer; the great Alan Cumming (“The Good Wife”) as the team’s flamboyant, gay, costume designer; Lewis Pullman as Riggs’s son Larry; Jessica McNamee (magnetic eyes!) as King’s Australian tennis nemesis Margaret Court. All bounce off the leads, and each other, just beautifully.   

The flamboyantly outrageous* Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling (Alan Cumming) with Billie-Jean (Emma Stone) and Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales). * Mind you, I’ve got a Desigual shirt that’s not a million miles away from that…!

Cinematography by Linus Sandgren (“La La Land“) and editing by Pamela Martin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) unite to deliver one of the most sexually charged haircuts you are ever likely to see on the screen. For those put off by this aspect of the storyline, the “girl-on-girl action” is pretty tastefully done and not overly graphic: it’s mostly “first-base” stuff rather than “third-base”!

“What a waste of a lovely night”. Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) and Billie-Jean (Emma Stone) get serious.

Directed with panache by the co-directors of the 2006 smash “Little Miss Sunshine” – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – all in all it’s a delight, especially for older audiences who will get a blast of nostalgia from days when sports were still played at a slightly more leisurely pace… and definitely without the grunting.

Fad Rating: FFFF.