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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Film review – Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016)

There is a moment in Café Society where the magic of 1950s Hollywood romance is really captured: a chance glance, an excited exchange, the promise of unfolding romance recognised instantly. That this exquisite one-shot involves not Kristen Stewart – the woman we need to believe is Jesse Eisenberg’s raison d’etre – but rather Blake Lively, reveals everything we need to know about why this Woody Allen effort fails to hit the heights of his more recent successes. That is, Kristen Stewart simply isn’t a believable love interest. At least not in this kind of film.

The 1930s-set story centres around Bobby (Eisenberg), a young Jewish man who has moved to Hollywood to pursue new career opportunities under the supervision of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful and well-connected film talent agent. He instantly falls in love with Veronica (Stewart), an assistant at Phil’s office,  unaware of the fact that his uncle is on the verge of breaking off his marriage to pursue his affair with Veronica.

The film hangs together on Jesse Eisenberg’s shoulders, as he starts off by doing his best Woody Allen impression and progresses towards his final position that is ever-so-slightly more alpha male than that. It is genuinely an excellent performance, bringing energy to the screen whenever he graces it.

He works best playing off against the plethora of supporting characters who never fail to exude the feel of the time and he’s clearly having fun under the supervision of one of the greatest living film directors. It’s a beautiful homage to the heyday of Hollywood, as Bobby develops into a socialite, bouncing from party to party first in Hollywood and then later on his return to New York.

Whenever Stewart appears on screen, she feels like a woman out of place in the era and unable to match the authentic performances of those around her. This goes against some excellent post-Twilight performances that have given her a route out of potential typecasting (American Ultra is a great example of this), but a classic Hollywood leading starlet she is not.

The film is not a complete failure. A hilariously delivered exchange between Bobby and a first-time prostitute is just one example of the smart comedic dialogue we’ve come to expect in Allen’s recent film. The jazz-centric score heightens the positioning in the era.

It’s just a shame that I was routing for he wrong girl.

Cafe Society is available now on DVD, along with the sumptuous Vince Giordano soundtrack.