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.

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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.

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Short film review – The Ugly Duckling (Jack Cutting and Clyde Geronimo, 1939)

This Walt Disney Productions short animation fell under the Silly Symphony banner when it was released in 1939. It went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short, the eighth in a run of eight Walt Disney films to do so.

It’s a fine little episode that tells the tale of a swanling that somehow ends up in a nest of ducklings, and is immediately shunned and ridiculed for being different to his surrogate brothers and sisters. 

A duck? Nah you must be quackers.

It curtails the original Hans Christian Andersen story by removing the whole extended pain of being without a family for around a year, skipping straight to the point where he is found by a swan family, presumably his own. In doing so, they miss out the point where he turns into an adult swan and the ducks are in awe of his beauty.
In its short sub-nine minute running time, it manages to fit in a surprising amount of substance. This is, for the whole part, a tale about an orphan who is unwanted by his new family. This would surely resonate with anyone in any element of this situation, and there is no holding back when the mother and father have a full-blown argument in front of the innocent swanling. Indeed, there’s a suggestion from the drake that since he looks nothing like the swan then perhaps his duck wife has been sleeping around. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

The animation is, inevitably, a thing of beauty. Two of Disney’s Nine Old Men were on animation duty (Milt Kahl and Eric Larson) and it certainly has the feel of one of their classic films (it was released between Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio). There’s a certain amount of warmth you find in these old animations that has never been replicated.

It’s probably not the best short releases around this time from Walt Disney Studios, but it is deserving of all the praise it has received over the years. Why not revisit it? You’re only 78 years late to the party!