Film review – Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2017)

On Thursday 20th September 1973, 55-year-old former male tennis pro Bobby Riggs took on then-current Women’s Wimbledon champion Bille Jean King in a $100,000 winner-takes-all exhibition match. Whilst the prize was significant – King won only £3000 for her Wimbledon title – the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was more significant in terms of what it meant for the game itself. As King herself put it, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

Now, the match and the surrounding attention has been turned into a motion picture, courtesy of the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their third feature film after debut Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006) and follow-up Ruby Sparks‘ (2012).

And it’s really rather good.


King (Stone) and Riggs (Carrell) pose for the cameras.

The biopic stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. It is clear from the start that both actors are relishing the chance to portray such iconic characters. Both have stories worth telling, which makes the final result feel fast-paced.

Riggs is larger than life, spouting ridiculous phrase after ridiculous phrase in the hope of any kind of attention. Carell is perfect for the role and, as usual, delivers something remarkably entertaining, far beyond the abilities of someone many mistake for a simple comedic actor. It’s amazing that Carell avoids becoming irritating, clearly enjoying with aplomb the misogynistic phrases Riggs became famous for.

King’s agenda is to exact revenge on those who underestimate the abilities of women tennis players, epitomised by Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and ensure that women tennis players were given a level of respect and pay equal to their male counterparts. It is a more complex role than Carell’s, especially when factoring in her failing marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) and her blossoming romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Stone again proves her acting mettle with an absolutely brilliant performance. She truly is an actor at the top of her game. It is her first portrayal of a real person, but she has clearly benefited from time spent with Billie Jean King in getting her mannerisms perfectly nailed down.

Equally, be ready to gasp at the end when you’re reminded exactly how much Steve Carell looks like Bobby Riggs.

This is a story that is as important to the LGBT community as it is to discussions about women’s rights and equality in sport and, more widely, in every profession. Billie Jean King was the first prominent female athlete to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian. Whilst this tale isn’t fully explored – it is limited to the reactions of Billie Jean King, Larry King, Marilyn Barnett and rival tennis player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) – there is certainly a sense of the impact this would have had at a critical moment in the blossoming of the women’s tennis game.

It is rare that a biopic comes together with such a perfect cast and crew and tells a story so effectively and authentically. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a fine achievement in filmmaking and one I will undoubtedly enjoy for a second time when it receives its full UK release later this year.

Film review – The Program (Stephen Frears, 2015)

In the midst of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, Sunday Times journalist David Walsh published his book Seven Deadly Sins. The sole purpose of the book was to blow the cover on Lance Armstrong and reveal the truth about the complex doping program he was involved with during his supremacy in cycling, specifically the Tour de France. Whilst Armstrong was banned for life from cycling in October 2012, two months prior to the release of the book, vindicating David Walsh and the contents of his book.

The Program re-tells this story, with Chris O’Dowd as David Walsh and Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong.

There are narrow margins in its portrayal of Armstrong. Frears gives a fair portrayal of the man, allowing room within the character to justify his actions. It doesn’t shy away from the fact he spearheaded this complex program of systematic doping, on a level so widespread that USADA (U.S. Anti-doping Agency) referred to it as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen“. However, to fully represent him, it must also be shown that he used a significant amount of his own time alongside the money earned to aide cancer research. The Program just about lands perfectly in the middle without feeling like it is sitting on the fence, only tipping into an out-and-out negative portrayal when he loses sight of his goal to beat cancer and instead gets addicted to winning at all costs.

When a massive scandal such as this is at the forefront of the public eye, it is easy to forget how successful and inspiring Lance Armstong was for both cyclists and cancer sufferers. It must be remembered that Lance Armstrong started doping, like most cyclists, because he couldn’t win a race without it. In this version of events, he was driven by the fact that doping was already widespread in the sport when he first considered it. It doesn’t strike me that Spears was condoning his actions; he wasn’t the first, nor was he the last. He was simply the most successful.

In hindsight, it was a win-win-win situation for everyone involved. Lance Armstrong won medals and tournaments every season, cancer research programs gained a lot of money and the profile of the sport was raised due to the success story playing out in the public’s eye. The only real losers were the honest cyclists who were unable to compete on the same level.

In time, this film won’t prove to be the definitive biopic on this subject, but with the media pursuit of truth as the approach it offers a unique angle on the situation. One wonders whether its success wasn’t hindered somewhat by the similarly-themed Spotlight, which was busy on the festival circuit at the same time as this. Spotlight may have not been everyone’s favoured choice for the Best Picture Academy Award in January, but it was certainly a more powerful film than The Program.