Friday 24 November 2017

Open warfare: "Battle of the Sexes"

Interest in the 1973 novelty exhibition match played by tennis stars Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was first reignited by a 2013 documentary account that played widely and won respectable reviews, but its essence has been seen everywhere in the months and years since - most prominently of all in the 2016 US Presidential face-off, but also in a series of sexual harassment and other workplace narratives that similarly pitted downtrodden yet determined and outspoken women against bluff, blustery, business-minded men. The task of making the Riggs-King clash multiplex- and awards-friendly has been assigned to the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris - a generally harmonious pairing - and the entertaining result, known simply as Battle of the Sexes, benefits from its tacit understanding it doesn't have to strain or reach too hard for contemporary parallels. 

If the result has long been on the books and inscribed into legend, Simon Beaufoy's script frames it as the culmination of a movement that no one man - especially not one as clownlike as Riggs - could conceivably halt. Here is a two-hour march towards some form of women's lib, a sight that only the most virginal, Pepe-worshipping meninist shut-in could take against. To a liberal smattering of period tunes, this King (Emma Stone) enters repeatedly into battle with Women's Tour boss Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over the matter of unequal pay, leaves her husband to take up with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) - you feel the maturing influence of new-cable shows like Masters of Sex in the comfort this PG-13-rated studio confection displays around that prospect - and even comes to serve as the vanguard of a sporting fashion revolution, modelling colour dresses, the brainchild of designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), and their own rebuke to the sport's overriding whiteness.

Steve Carell's Riggs, of course, begs to be booed as the epitome of white male privilege from the minute he's introduced sitting alone in a corporate tower block. (The TV installed in the back of his Rolls-Royce clinches that particular deal.) Beaufoy, however, senses how he needed this showcase more than his opponent: when we first join him, he's in the process of being kicked out of the marital home by exasperated wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), and installing himself on the couch of a son who's heard all his glory-days stories before. Palpably wounded pride visible beneath his huckster surface, this Riggs isn't so far removed from the can-do desperation of The Office's Michael Scott, and Carell lasers in on what's funny about the setpiece where Riggs insists his fellow losers at a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting need only to get better at what they've been doing, rather than stop; it's similarly hard to resist those scenes where, in the full media glare, he takes to the practice courts wearing a Bo Peep outfit, or wielding a frying pan for a racket. Like a faded matinee idol seeking an alternative revenue stream, this Riggs is a pantomime villain who knows it, a sideburned heel embracing the role, which takes any sting out of his eventual defeat in what the final half-hour presents as a bright, cartoon Rumble in the Jungle.

The one sophistry in Beaufoy's script is to make the distinction between this putz and a true power broker like Kramer, who wielded far greater clout than any wooden racket could generate: an acknowledgement that Billie Jean had levels of chauvinism, like rounds in a tournament, to negotiate, and that her besting an entry-level pig such as Bobby Riggs could only be considered a start. Stone seems physically smaller than King herself - sitting on her hotel bed, the actress's feet don't touch the floor - but facially, especially with those Deirdre Barlow specs on, she gets close enough to convince; more crucially, she aces the spirit that led King to come to the net in the first place. The history of this battle was written long ago by the winner, which is why the real-life King turned up on The One Show to promote the movie, and one reason why Riggs was nowhere to be seen, reduced in the wake of his death in 1995 to no more than a footnote or fossil. (In actuality, the opponents here remained great friends off-court, and King was among the last to speak to Riggs before he passed.) Yet these stories can be lively, too, as well as an education: this one's for all those La La Land fans who genuinely had no idea what their mothers and grandmothers had to go through, or just what it took for Serena and Maria to become brand ambassadors.

Battle of the Sexes opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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