Tennis was my sport growing up. From the moment I could hold up a racket my Dad had me out on the court chasing balls until my feet hurt. In retrospect this was obviously an easy way to where out a tween boy who stayed up too late on the weekends but I still appreciated it. I played all through high school and less so in college but always stayed a fan of the professional game. Growing up with Sampras, Agassi, Federer (who is still doing it, showoff,) Graf, Seles then the Williams sisters I never had a shortage of favorite players. One of the best things about the game is how it embraces its history and keeps legendary players around each modern iteration of the game. It’s how I learned about Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and of course Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean King is still a tennis icon but now may be known for her incredible social activism in the LGBTQ community as well as the feminist strides she made in the 1970’s and continues today. You may only know her as the woman that once played (and beat) a man in a 5-set match. That event and the many preceding it are the subject of the new film, Battle of the Sexes.
The film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine,) is a slice of King’s life in the early 1970’s. Here we find King (Emma Stone) at #1 in the world, the best women’s player on the planet. She’s just used her platform to achieve equal pay for female participants at the US Open but wants to take it further – she wants that to extend to the entire tour.
But of course, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) of the ULTA (US Lawn Tennis Association) can’t fathom a world where this makes sense. He claims men on average make 8-times their female counterparts because, “they are faster and stronger,” or, “they are the main ticket draw.” King has heard this line of bullshit many times and before Kramer can call her bluff she and many of the top players in the women’s game succeed from the ULTA and form their own separate tour – sponsored by Virginia Slims.
It’s this second act where we see how hard these women worked to set up events, sell tickets, drive to venues and drum up excitement. Their manager/handler Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) secures the sponsorships, keeps the women on schedule and dishes out the best one liners. But it’s King who is really the draw, it’s her incredible game but also her admirable on-camera presence that keeps the tour afloat.
Meanwhile, as the tour gains steam, something is brewing in the retired tennis ranks. Former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is plotting his next move. Since being retired Riggs has taken a dead-end job at his wealthy wife’s (Elisabeth Shue) father’s firm, trying to keep his nose clean. See, Riggs is addicted to gambling, he can’t resist even a little action at the country club as he takes his tennis buddies money at the slightest mention of a bet. He sees these women gaining notoriety from afar and can’t help himself – he’s going to unleash the full Riggs experience and become a self-proclaimed male chauvinist and challenge the best women in the game to a match, winner take all. Even at 55, he can’t possibly lose, and think of the money and spectacle.
King is kind of “in” on the Riggs shtick but you know she wants to beat him too. 90-million people watched Billy Jean King play Bobby Riggs in a full Astrodome in Houston, Texas. The recreation does an incredible job of capturing the sheer audacity of it all. Riggs coming out in his sponsored Sugar Daddy – yellow tracksuit and King being carried out by shirtless men on a feather-laden Roman-esque throne. Meanwhile Howard Cosell captures the action from above with some of the ugliest, most sexist remarks you could possibly imagine.
What’s captured so well in Battle of the Sexes isn’t even the tennis action – which is serviceable but never really rises above most sports cliché – it’s the rampant and socialized sexism of the 1970’s. Women are lesser in nearly every frame of this film, constantly ribbed with, “get back in the kitchen” style epithets. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come yet how far we have to go.
But also, Billie Jean King had not come out back then, in fact she was married to her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) and throughout this year stopped resisting her true self. In the film it’s the tours hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) who King falls for, spending nearly every second off the court in bed together. It’s the tours worst kept secret but one few of them understand.
Emma Stone captures King’s struggle beautifully, often rising above some very flat directorial choices. Her passion for King is evident and she disappears behind those glasses and dark hair. In fact, it’s this level of dedication to the material from the entire cast, Carell included, that keeps Battle of the Sexes from slipping into a saccharine, Disney tearjerker. Instead we’re given a portrait of a revolutionary with a racket, a woman I can proudly call a hero.