As the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) began on Thursday, Sept. 7, the anticipation for BATTLE OF THE SEXES was at a fever pitch. The project is only the third film from Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton since their breakthrough debut in 2006. It was also Emma Stone’s first movie since winning an Oscar for last year’s La La Land and there probably won’t be a movie as timely and relevant at this year’s TIFF.
By comparison, Janus Metz’ BORG/MCENROE, the fest opener, was being eyed more than anything else for the return of Hollywood bad boy Shia Labeouf playing ‘80s tennis bad boy John McEnroe.
The latter is really about the build-up to the nail-biter of a finals match that McEnroe played against Swedish superstar Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) at the 1980 Wimbledon Open tennis tournament. It recreates that match quite ably, but it’s really more about the build-up to the match in the week prior, while also acting as more of a biopic about Borg than McEnroe. It’s a fascinating character study of the challenges faced by professional athletes, especially in 1980 when tennis players were becoming famous superstar celebrities.
Borg/McEnroe is very much a Scandinavian film with the Dane Metz, mainly a documentary filmmaker, working from a screenplay by Swedish writer Ronnie Sandahl, their fascination with their country’s hero is fairly obvious. It’s prefaced by an introduction explaining how Borg had won four previous Wimbledons and was attending in 1980 with the chance to set a record in wins with McEnroe being the young upstart hoping to break that streak.
Metz uses the story to explore the price of fame and notoriety, and how different people deal with it. Via flashbacks, we learn that Borg had the same temper issues as McEnroe but it’s the admonishment by his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) that forces Borg to change his ways.
Gudnason bears an eerie similarity to the real Borg with the same long blonde hair and good looks that drove Borg’s female fans crazy. From the beginning its obvious he’s not comfortable with the fame, but what makes LaBeouf perfect to play McEnroe is that he has a similar built-in notoriety as the tennis player at this point.
Most Americans were rooting for McEnroe, despite his notoriety and the vocal hatred he received from the British locals, so Metz’s film does show another side of the coin for those who weren’t as aware of what Borg was going through. As someone who watched quite a few of the actual Wimbledon matches as a kid, I can say that Metz and his actors really get them right to the point where I was sure they had inserted actual footage from the matches into the movie especially in the famous verbal altercation between McEnroe with Jimmy Connors.
To say that Battle of the Sexes is a different animal would be an understatement. While there’s a similar hugely-viewed tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Watson) and Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell) at the film’s core, it’s more about their individual lives off the court and how the changes they were going through was reflected in the changes in the world.
In the early ’70s, King is one of the top women tennis players, but she has reached her limit with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), head of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, because she’s not getting paid nearly as much as the men. Along with King’s manager/publicist Gladys (Sarah Silverman), they form the Women’s Tennis Association, promoting the first women’s tennis tour sponsored by Virginia Slims, which draws away almost a dozen top women pros with the promise of being treated and paid better than they are by the USLTA. They’re all ousted from the league for the affront.
To prepare for the league’s first press conference, King has her hair styled by Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a spiritual younger woman who immediately bonds with the tennis pro. At this point, Billy Jean is still married to Larry King (Austin Stowell), a husband that’s hugely supportive of his wife’s career even as she seems to be straying away from him.
Then there’s Bobbie Riggs (Carell), a former tennis champ who decides to generate publicity by challenging some of these top women players to a match to cement his statements that men are indeed better players than women. King eventually decides to accept Riggs’ challenge in order to shut up the sexist pig, and that would lead to a match that in 1973 that would be watched by millions.
The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) is close to perfect in the way it relays the story of the match of the film’s title, finding a way to juggle a number of subplots to tell a cohesive story that doesn’t feel like a typical biopic.
More than anything, Battle of the Sexes is another showcase for the talents of Emma Stone, a great follow-up to her Oscar-winning role in La La Land, while proving she can play real people if given the chance. You couldn’t get a better person to play right now than ’70s icon Billie Jean King.
By comparison, Carell’s portrayal of Riggs is almost more about the wig and facial prosthetics ala Foxcatcher, but it further cements comparisons that might be made between him and Peter Sellers. As much as Riggs is a clown prince that’s all about the show business he brings to the sport, he also has to contend with domestic issues from his gambling problem that forces his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) to leave him – not that demeaning her entire gender helps matters.
There are so many characters around the core trio, and each of them has their moments, which makes Battle of the Sexes more of an ensemble piece than might be assumed. Dayton and Faris seem perfectly suited to blend so many storylines into a cohesive unit, and create a film that’s at the same time entertaining as it is poignant.
Battle of the Sexes is a welcome return to form for Dayton and Faris, while Borg/McEnroe shines a similar spotlight on some Scandinavian talent we’ll presumably hear more from in the future.
Both movies are quite good and likely to appeal to different audiences. Battle of the Sexes is entertaining enough it won’t be driven solely by female business as some might think, but women will be rooting for their side more than the men. On the other hand, Borg/McEnroe will be counting more on older males to drive its business, and it possibly may be Scandinavian for mainstream American audiences. It’s clearly more about tennis while Battle of the Sexes tries to explore larger and more timely ideas.
Battle of the Sexes will be released in select cities on Sept. 22 via Fox Searchlight. Neon has distribution rights to Borg/McEnroe but they’ve yet to set a release date.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor