Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Battle of the Sexes

Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

America in the late 60's saw global super power fallen on hard times; embroiled in a war in Vietnam, the economy crippled by oil shocks and one of their most notoriously evil Presidents overseeing it all in the White House.

So a good question for us might be: have things improved in the four decades since? The US is still embroiled in foreign conflicts and their economy is still a basket case. At least they have a better President now.

Another slant on this same question is the driving force behind this entertaining, pseudo-sports documentary; has the lot of women in America improved since the dawn of the modern feminist movement in the sixties?

Based on the evidence presented here the answer seems to be, 'Yeeeeessss... but.'

The film tackles this subject through an unusual prism: the founding of a professional tennis circuit for women and subsequent novelty challenge matches that were staged between leading women’s tennis players of the day, and an aging, loudly sexist, former men’s tennis champ. The sporting elements are then deftly set alongside the story of the fledgling women’s rights movement from the same era, showing how they were both facets of the same cultural moment.

Once women felt empowered to speak up for themselves, change came to every aspect of society where women were involved i.e. absolutely everywhere. Tennis was just one area that underwent radical change. The film energetically sets up both scenarios and links them together through some judicious editing and framing material.

The film opens in 1967, the last year tennis was played on an amateur basis. The sport was totally unrecognisable from the multi-billion dollar TV extravaganza that it is today. The leading players were low key athletes with little media profile and, outside of the US Open and Wimbledon, little attention was paid to them.

Professionalism arrived in 1968 and with it came greater financial rewards and a higher profile. From the outset, women were paid much less than their male colleagues (at Wimbledon in 1968, the men’s singles winner received 2000 pounds and the women’s 750 pounds) and were generally treated as second class citizens. The film explains this as in keeping with the standards of the day; commercials, TV clips and sound bites are shown that depict women in a limited, stereotypical fashion, cooking, cleaning, mothering and mostly treated like cattle.

As famous feminist activists like Susan Sondheim stood up for themselves in public, leading female tennis players of the time were inspired to demand equitable treatment as well. They organised their own breakaway tennis tour, risking their careers (bans were threatened) and played wherever they could find sponsors and a crowd. The success of this radical venture paved the way for all of the treasure that was to flow into women's tennis in the ensuing decades.

Enter Bobby Riggs.

Riggs was a 55 year old former tennis champ – he had twice won Wimbledon in his heyday – fallen on hard times. As professional women’s tennis began to blossom, Riggs reinvented himself as an outspoken 'male chauvinist pig' and challenged the top women's players to an exhibition match. When he played, and unexpectedly defeated, Australian champ Margaret Court, Riggs was able to drum up an enormous amount of media interest and dough, which he used to set up a second match.

Second time round, Riggs faced off against Billy Jean King, a top shelf American player who had also helped champion the breakaway professional women’s tour (something Court had not been involved in). Billed as ‘The Battle of the Sexes,’ the match was depicted as a cultural, as well as sporting, clash; feminism versus chauvinism, traditional values against contemporary ideas, the old against the new. Interest in the match was such that it had to be played in a football stadium to accommodate the crowd, and an estimated 90 million people watched on TV (making it the most watched tennis match in the history of the sport).

The second half of the movie focuses on this match, its protracted build up and aftermath and it is here that it most closely resembles a traditional sports doco. This part of the film is broadly entertaining, with King’s earnest professionalism and Rigg’s goofy bafoonery in stark contrast.

But the film makers never lose sight of the themes they establish in the opening half of the film, and find inventive ways to connect the dots between their keys points even as some iffy tennis re-enactments take over onscreen.

Riggs is a ridiculous symbol of something very ugly in society, but he is a symbol all the same and some of the film’s most telling moments come as his defenders (male and female) voice their support for his offensive pronouncements. And King’s victory, while a watershed moment for women’s sports, is also clearly positioned as just one small battle, among a much wider equal rights war (one that continues to this day).

Maintaining an entertaining tone and light touch from start to finish, this fascinating movie manages to be generally entertaining but still nail its targets. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking in equal measure, a skillful balance beyond the capabilities of many films. The presentation is not ground breaking – in fact, it is another example of what we have to come to expect from a contemporary doco – but is well handled and tightly packaged.

A top shelf piece of cultural commentary and a fun (if occasionally horrifying) time capsule.

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