Women’s tennis has given sport some of its most indelible images. The terribly sad death of Jana Novotna earlier this week ignited memories of one of them: a distraught Novotna sobbing in the arms of the Duchess of Kent after letting slip a seemingly unassailable lead in the 1993 Wimbledon singles final.
Twenty years earlier, the Wimbledon title was claimed by Billie Jean King. Yet it wasn’t the most seismic victory she enjoyed that year, at least not as far as posterity — and this excellent film — are concerned.
In September 1973, King, then aged 29 (and played here by Emma Stone), took part in a widely publicised exhibition match against 55-year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), himself a former Wimbledon champion and self-proclaimed ‘male chauvinist pig’.
Break point: Emma Stone and Steven Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes
Former tennis great Bobby Riggs and top female tennis player Billie Jean King arm wrestle at a press conference
Riggs was an incorrigible gambler and hustler who felt that women’s tennis was a pale shadow of the men’s game. He wasn’t alone. The tennis establishment, represented in the movie by another former playing great, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), thought the same.
So King, in taking up the $100,000 ‘Battle of the Sexes’ challenge thrown down by Riggs, felt she was carrying a flag not just on behalf of women’s tennis, but womankind in general.
By today’s measure of balance between the genders, which might be some way from full equilibrium but is a sight less tilted than it was in 1973, it’s easy enough to see why. Casual sexism and condescension abounded even in TV commentaries: ‘Watch out guys, there’s no stopping this little lady!’
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the married couple who also made Little Miss Sunshine (2006), do a fine job of evoking the era — which admittedly isn’t all that tricky, once you’ve got the hairstyles, the tie-knots and a glimpse of Kojak on the telly.
More impressively, they, and British screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, cram a whole lot of story into the film’s two-hour running time.
For it doesn’t simply set the scene for the concluding showdown at the Houston Astrodome; it also explains how King, in cahoots with the publisher of World Tennis magazine, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), launched a new era in women’s tennis by setting up the Virginia Slims circuit (which in due course became the Women’s Tennis Association, from which Nov-otna and all later players benefited). That might sound rather stuffily political, but it is deftly handled and important in understanding why King is such a pivotal figure in the sport’s history. However, the story doesn’t stop there.
Billie Jean King in action at Wimbledon in 1970. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a fine job of evoking the era
Stone is terrific as King, while Carell, so wonderful in 2014’s Foxcatcher, again shows how good he is as a straight dramatic actor
With a little chronological licence, Beaufoy’s script also weaves in King’s homosexual awakening, as she falls for her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
Moreover, while her burgeoning love match with Barnett is destroying her marriage to the decent, affable Larry (Austin Stowell), Riggs is driving his patrician wife (Elisabeth Shue) to the end of her tether with his addictive betting.
As I say, there’s a lot going on. There’s even a small, but significant, role for Alan Cumming, as the ineffably camp tennis-wear designer Teddy Tinling.
Aptly enough, the movie unfolds a bit like a really good baseline rally: a blow for the men, a counter-blow for the women. Stone is terrific as King, while Carell, so wonderful in 2014’s Foxcatcher, again shows how good he is as a straight dramatic actor. Straight-ish, anyway.
Riggs is a buffoon, seemingly incapable of taking life seriously, but Carell still manages to give him proper depth. In some ways, it is a surprisingly sympathetic performance. Really, Kramer is the film’s antagonist, not Riggs.
In tennis terms, Battle Of The Sexes makes a few foot-faults. Some of the platforms for rampant sexist talk — a sweaty locker room here, a pompous gentlemen’s club there — are perhaps a little too obvious. But on the whole this is an immensely entertaining and enlightening picture.
Timely, too. Earlier this year, the ever-brash John McEnroe asserted that he, aged 58, could still beat the women’s number one, Serena Williams. They should install Billie Jean in the commentary box, and bring it on!
Riggs is a buffoon, seemingly incapable of taking life seriously, but Carell still manages to give him proper depth
Aptly enough, the movie unfolds a bit like a really good baseline rally: a blow for the men, a counter-blow for the women
Daddy’s Home (12A)
Verdict: Daft but enjoyable
I can’t pretend that I’ve been willing anyone to bring on Daddy’s Home 2, even though I quite liked the 2015 original.
But here it is — and like the first film, it more or less revolves around a single joke: Will Ferrell’s character, Brad, is decent and well-meaning while also being a guileless, sentimental klutz; while Mark Wahlberg’s Dusty, to whose children Brad is stepfather, is full of guile and hard as nails.
The ‘fresh’ dimension for the sequel is that both men’s fathers descend to spend Christmas with the extended family, with Brad and Dusty turning out to be chips off the old block.
Will Ferrell’s character, Brad, is decent and well-meaning while also being a guileless, sentimental klutz; while Mark Wahlberg’s Dusty, to whose children Brad is stepfather, is full of guile and hard as nails
But wit isn’t really what drives Daddy’s Home 2. Mostly, it generates its laughs (and in fairness, there are quite a number) with knockabout visual comedy, which is well executed by a strong cast
Brad’s dad is sweet, cuddly Don, charmingly played by John Lithgow, while as Dusty’s father Mel Gibson gives it full throttle as a boorish retired astronaut, Kurt by name and curt by nature.
I suppose it might have shown a wittier ambition on the part of director Sean Anders, and his co-writer John Morris, if they had turned the gag on its head this time, and made Brad’s father the alpha male, and Dusty’s father the twinkly-eyed old hugger.
But wit isn’t really what drives Daddy’s Home 2. Mostly, it generates its laughs (and in fairness, there are quite a number) with knockabout visual comedy, which is well executed by a strong cast.
Here and there, however, if you pay attention, there are some astute insights into the human condition. I especially enjoyed a scene in which all four dads find common ground protesting at the central-heating thermostat being turned up. That, on both sides of the Atlantic, is clearly a fatherly prerogative.