‘Battle of the Sexes’: How the Camera Captures the Subversive Politics of the ’70s


In an award season dominated by biopics and politics, “Battle of the Sexes” serves the first volley with its deep dive into the sexual revolution and the women’s movement of the ’70s.  When tennis star Billie Jean King (“La La Land” Oscar-winner Emma Stone) beat blowhard Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) at the Houston Astrodome in 1973, she not only struck a blow for equality and respect, but also gained the confidence to pursue her sexual identity as a lesbian. Therefore, the sports/biopic directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) captures a game-changing moment that resonates today in Trump’s America.

And in visualizing the era, Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) went at it without a whiff of nostalgia. “Basically, Jon and Val wanted to make a film like it was made in the ’70s on real locations in a contemporary fashion,” said Sandgren, who referenced “The French Connection” and “Nashville,” among others.

The Rules of the Game

In keeping with the ’70s vibe, Sandgren shot on 35mm, as he did on “La La Land,” and is preparing to do on Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Neil Armstrong biopic, “The First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling and pushing naturalistic boundaries again. He worked with Camtec and Arri camera, bolstered by lots of zoom lenses and glass from the period. He also pushed the grain, contrast, and color saturation in the negative for a more organic look.

The impact is immediate: Over the titles, King’s athletic prowess explodes in a blur of abstract, poetic beauty. “We created rules for ourselves for camera distance,” Sandgren said. “The less the character lets us into their lives, the further away we were with zooms, while the most intimate scenes we were hand-held and close with primes. We would go closer with the camera like in those scenes between Bobby and his wife [Elizabeth Shue] or Billie Jean and her girlfriend [Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough]. The idea was the ultimate distance you have between them was when you were watching them on TV. So that would be zoom lens far away and also another layer of filter through a TV.”

“Battle of the Sexes”

Fox Searchlight Pictures

For blocking, the cinematographer used dollies and zooms to recompose shots. “It feels like it’s five shots but it’s actually just one take,” said Sandgren. “But the reason it feels like five shots is because it went from a tight to a wide and it became a two-shot because of the blocking of the actors and how they ended up, and the way it’s composed by long single takes.”

Meanwhile, to enhance the eroticism when hairdresser Barnett first meets King and cuts her hair, Sandgren played it in closeups with special zoom lenses. “They were warmer and a little bit more distorted and hazy and we got more dreamlike,” he said.

For the sex scene, also in closeups, King instinctively becomes the aggressor, as she does in tennis. “And I think it happened by accident, but what felt like an extra layer of closeness to her was that she [takes] off her glasses,” Sandgren said. “You never see her without her glasses and that’s as close as you can get to her.”

Visualizing Solitude and Loneliness

To help empathize with Riggs, who had a gambling addiction and was supported by his wealthy wife (which made his male chauvinism very ironic), the cinematographer created a sense of solitude and even imprisonment.  This occurred at the outset when he’s bored in his office and watches King winning on TV.

“Battle of the Sexes”

photo credit Melinda Sue Gordon

“But sometimes, out of respect for the character, we wanted to stand back a little and zoom in because it’s almost too sensitive,” Sandgren said. “An example was when he tried to get his wife back. We wanted to get close to his face, but we couldn’t really, though, without disturbing the scene, so we sat back a little bit and zoomed into his eyes.”

Politicizing the Battle of the Sexes

The final, climactic match at the Astrodome was recreated by Sandgren and the crew with great fidelity to the actual spectacle shot with TV cameras and with VFX enhancement from Lola. They used professional tennis players as stand-ins as well as the two stars, who trained and learned their moves. “Perhaps Steve was more able to play because he plays tennis, but they were both able to act as if they were professional tennis players with the proper body language,” said Sandgren. We had before and after [footage] so we could overlap into the sequences that we shot with five cameras.”

Sandgren also worked out a strategy with the directors that politicized the motion of King and Riggs during their match (which extended to female and male perspectives throughout the movie). “We felt it could be interesting to create a running visual metaphor where Billie Jean and the other women players are often looking forward, while the men are looking back,” he said. “The women progressively moved from left to right and King [retreated] by moving from right to left. And if they met each other in conflict situation, the women would be looking right and the men would be looking left.”

“Battle of the Sexes” (Emma Stone with DP Linus Sandgren)

photo credit Melinda Sue Gordon

“Sometimes we changed that during the battle. Billie Jean might have to go backwards in order to beat him. Even though she’s the progressive one, in the actual battle, she fights him to the left and then goes forward again. It’s a subtle expression of her aggressive physicality.”

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