New balls all round as we serve a volley of opinions your way on Borg McEnroe and Battle of the Sexes. Two studies of rivalries and the characters behind them, but are they champions or on the bus home after crashing out of the first round? The only way you will ever find out is by listening in!
“Running for your life from Shia LaBeouf
He’s brandishing a knife, it’s Shia LaBeouf
Lurking in the shadows, Hollywood superstar Shia LaBeouf
Living in the woods, Shia LaBeouf
Killing for sport, Shia LaBeouf
Eating all the bodies, actual cannibal Shia LaBeouf!”
And what does that have to do with anything? Well, more or less sod all, save that the video that it’s from amuses me greatly. If it does have relevance it’s that it’s about the only thing I can remember in several years (possibly going as far back as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) associated with Shia LaBeouf that was positive and good, and in direct opposition to the seemingly constant tales of his plagiarism, plagiarised apologies for said plagiarism, and general ‘being a complete arse’-dness of the once very popular actor. Fortunately, though, we are presented in Borg McEnroe with an opportunity to reconsider and revisit LaBeouf the actor.
At the end of the 1970s the indisputable king of tennis was Sweden’s Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) who, when we meet him, is aiming to win an unprecedented fifth Wimbledon championship in a row. The greatest stumbling block between him and this sporting milestone is the brash, but brilliant, young US player John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), who has been making a name for himself as much for his on-court demeanour as his on-court prowess.
Borg is seen as a machine: cool, calm, calculating, in contrast to McEnroe’s much more volatile personality, but it is a manufactured and cultivated exterior, which hides within a history of self-doubt, impetuousness, passion and rage considerably more similar to McEnroe than anyone could possibly guess. Borg is the favourite, both in terms of expectation and in how he is viewed by the crowd. His great rival McEnroe is much more prickly, and his regular tantrums have not endeared him to the generally polite and conservative tennis-watching public.
Janus Metz Pedersen’s film, from a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl, tries to get to the heart of this famous rivalry between two of the sport’s greatest proponents, and shows that they are nowhere near as disparate in personality as it seems on the surface. To that end, the structure will be entirely familiar to anyone who has seen sporting rivalry films before, but the reality on which this film is based allows for a refreshing twist on a well-worn format. To wit, while they have crossed each other’s paths before, the rivalry for each man, the difficulty to be overcome, exists entirely within themselves.
So while the expected flashbacks to the formative years of each player give some insight into their personalities and history, there is no moment of insult, or great defeat. Nobody spoke ill of nobody’s mama, and nobody served a 110mph ace directly at anyone’s head. Instead, each man (and Borg in particular) has built up their opponent as the bogeyman entirely in their own mind (with, of course, the ever helpful hand of the press).
The film climaxes with the Wimbledon final, with Borg aiming for his fifth championship and McEnroe his first. Sadly, this is perhaps the least successful portion of the film as it fails to capture the incredible tension that tennis fans like myself know can accompany tie breaks and match points.
In the end it’s not the most remarkable film, albeit still a solidly entertaining one, but it is raised above many of its peers by strong performances from Gudnason and Stellan Skarsgård, and, while it’s certainly not LaBeouf’s best turn, it’s a pleasant reminder that he can act pretty well when he’s not being an absolute tit. Add these things to the far from common approach to rivalry and it’s one worth checking out, particularly if, like me, you were lacking a good tennis film.
The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. Like blatant sexism. Thankfully, here in Space Year 2018, all such issues of equality have been definitively settled, and we can all enjoy our utopian lives in this certainly not blasted hellscape of moral torpor at all, oh no.
Although a distant memory for us in what’s now a permanent golden age (am I leaning too heavily on this?), inequality was very much a thing back in 1973 where women’s number one tennis player, Billie Jean King, played here by Emma Stone, protests over the vast gulf in prize money between the men’s and women’s game by breaking away from the establishment to form a new Women’s Tour with several other athletes.
The establishment, represented here mainly by Bill Pullman’s overtly dismissive Jack Kramer, doesn’t take this lying down, throwing them out of the US Lawn Tennis Association, thereby knocking them out of contention for the Fed Cup and other tournaments. Which is presented as an act of spite rather than an entirely obvious consequence of their decision, which I suppose makes King an oblivious Brexiteer railing against the EU?
Also slightly concerned by the unequal pay between the seniors and men’s tour prize pot is former No. 1 Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, although really he’s more focused on a great opportunity for a spot of hustling. Latching on to King’s demands for equality, he goes full throttle comedy chauvinist pig, declaring men the superior sex and issuing challenges to King to meet him on the court of battle to settle this question, in front of a large paying audience, of course.
I recall the trailer for Battle of the Sexes presenting this as more of a roustabout comedy than anything, with Rigg’s sideshow circus antics being prominently featured, and it does play a prominent part in the final act, but this is much more a film about Billie Jean King’s assorted internal battles than it is about a poxy game of tennis.
A closeted King’s relationship with her hairdresser lover, her perceived need to keep this secret given the attitudes of the time and how this impacts her husband, takes up a good portion of the running time, along with how that affects her mental preparations going into the match with Riggs that she’s taking much more seriously than he is, seemingly.
As for Riggs, whether it’s overconfidence or that he’s simply more focused on pulling sponsorship, ticket sales and cash in general, it’s only at the end that he seems to realise what this match means, and perhaps that he’s been playing with fire of a higher temperature than he intended. It’s perhaps a missed opportunity here – Riggs’ habitual gambling and hustling is mentioned, but almost as off-handedly as the pro-wrestling style sexist promos he gives to promote the match. This film presents Riggs’ shtick as harmless banter, with a wink to the camera, and that he’s not a bad guy at all. Which may well be the case, but it’s still prodding hot-button issues for commercial gain, which isn’t exactly the most defensible position.
This is mainly glossed over in the presentation here, and, well, I suppose it didn’t make much of an impact as I still rather enjoyed this film, but, as I say, perhaps an opportunity missed to get a little more into Riggs’ mindset. However, as a film much more focused on King, who has the more interesting, wider story anyway, it’s probably not a critical flaw.
It does a slightly better job of characterising King, but it’s still not an in-depth look at her character. Thankfully, Emma Stone makes the most of what she’s given, and makes her a hugely empathetic and courageous presence on screen. Similarly Carrell shows enough charisma to get away with his shtick as being more cheeky than arse-cheek.
It’s no in-depth character-piece, for sure, and i get the impression if the dial had moved just a little from entertaining to analytical this could have been a really special film, rather than a really fun film that, I’m sure, I’ll not remember all that much from next year.
Of course, that very enjoyability dial setting does mean that it’s very easy to recommend y’all watch it.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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