“In the seventies, we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes. We had to make it okay to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports” – Billie Jean King
Retrospective Review is generally for a look back at a film after time has passed to reflect on it. This review is a reflection of the historical event mixed with a review of the recent 2017 movie starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs.
Two months ago, I did not even know the famed Battle of the Sexes Tennis match between tennis greats, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, occurred. However, I had tickets and went to the second week of the U.S. Open this year. The film Battle of the Sexes was naturally marketed during the event. Billie Jean King and Emma Stone, who stars as King in the film, appeared before the women’s Finals for a tribute to King. Since 2006, the grounds in Flushing for the U.S. Open are named for her: the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center. Accordingly, I obviously knew she was an all-time great tennis champion who was even more important for her fight for equal prize money for the women players and equality for women in general. She is a cultural icon and hero for women and the LBGT community. She was and still is a pioneer who continues to champion the rights and causes of both groups. Billie Jean has definitely earned the admiration and reverence she receives wherever she goes. Nevertheless, I did not know the details of her struggle and fully appreciate her until I heard of the Battle of the Sexes film and looked into the story and the background behind it. Sometimes, real life produces a much better story than Hollywood ever could. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement was in full stride. At the same time, Billie Jean King was in her prime as a tennis player and at her peak as the most famous female player. While she could have stood pat and accepted the status quo, she risked her own career and reputation to fight for equal prize money and respect for the women’s draw. Meanwhile, she dealt with a personal struggle with her identity as she realized she was attracted to women. Since she was married to a very loving husband and being a lesbian was not accepted by society at all during that time, she dealt with a very difficult internal conflict where she fought her feelings to conform to societal norms.
In addition to those very serious issues, she was drawn into an absolute spectacle when she faced Bobby Riggs in an exhibition. Although he was 55 at the time, he was a three time Grand Slam champion. He won Wimbledon once and the U.S. Open twice. As a result, he brought public credibility on the male side of the match to validate it as a true battle of the sexes. In fact, he was favored by odds makers going into the match. However, he was a hustler. He lived in a time when the debate about a woman’s proper role in society was supercharged. He was not a true male chauvinist. He craved the attention and enjoyed playing the villain. He knew how to create buzz and a circus atmosphere that the public would pay to watch. The film does an excellent job telling the story from both players’ perspectives. Even though it compresses the timeline of events and takes some artistic liberties, it sticks to the actual story much more than most sports films do. It really does try to take us back in time. It even uses the old 20th Century Fox logo, which would have been used in 1973, in the opening crawl. More importantly, we already know the outcome to the events (Please see Slate’s Culture Blog’s What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Battle of the Sexes for a great article about how historically accurate the film actually is). As such, storytelling becomes even more crucial for this movie. The flow of the film is seamless and the character and plot development are very well done. In addition, the cast is tremendous. Emma Stone is already established as one of the premier actresses in Hollywood. Not surprisingly, she delivers a brilliant performance as Billie Jean King. She captures the look and movement, especially on the court, of King. More importantly, she makes us feel the emotions of stress and triumph King must have felt as she experienced the events. Similarly, Steve Carrell provides a flawless portrayal of Bobby Riggs. He definitely makes Riggs amusing and likeable. The audience understands Riggs’s nature and motivation in spite of the villain he intentionally pretends to be. Furthermore, the supporting cast is outstanding too. Overall, I totally enjoyed the film. It is one of the most consequential sports films I have seen. Despite the lack of fanfare it has received, I highly recommend it as a powerful story. It pays appropriate tribute to the greatness and importance of Billy Jean King.
The film begins with clips of Billie Jean King winning another U.S. Open as she continues to be the biggest name in women’s tennis. Shortly after, she is informed of the plan to pay women a winning prize of $1,500 while their men counterparts will get $12,000 for the Pacific Southwest Open. She confronts tennis promoter and commentator, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), about the pay disparity. Although Riggs will later be the main foil for her in the film, Kramer is the real villain. Male chauvinism is not an act for him. He is exuding it to set discriminatory policies and practices. Billie Jean protests that the women have sold just as many tickets as the men for tennis matches. As such, they should be paid the same as men. Nevertheless, Kramer is steadfast in his stance that the men’s game is faster, stronger, and simply much better to watch. He acts like a gentleman despite his backward and unevolved views about women. It might be worse when someone discriminates against someone politely. One can dismiss a loud chauvinist as an idiot but a gentleman would seem to have the intelligence to know better. Bill Pullman does a very good job in the role. Of course, King is not pleased. Out of frustration, she immediately threatens to start a women’s only tour to compete with the Pacific Southwest Open. Naturally, Kramer does not take it seriously. I like that the film explains how much Billie Jean King had at stake. When the threat comes to fruition, Kramer tries to stop her by noting that starting the separate tour will force the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USTLA) to kick the renegade female players out. In addition to losing their rankings, they faced exclusion from playing in the Grand Slams. For Billie Jean, the thought of not playing in Wimbledon that she loved [and would eventually win 20 times between singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles] or the U.S. Open would have been devastating. However, she understood her importance to the cause of equal pay and equality for women and willingly risked her career and reputation to fight for it. Although the original 9 included other top players, the separate women’s tour would have never worked without Billie Jean, who was the superstar and headliner. Emma Stone does an amazing job portraying the strength, grit, and determination of Billie Jean. As one could conclude, the film does a great job in setting up the story and showing why Billie Jean is a hero who deserves all the accolades and respect she commands today.
In addition, there is no guarantee that the tour would even be successful. It could fail without the support of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), who is the founder of World Tennis Magazine. She is the most memorable of a very strong and fun group of supporting characters. Gladys backed the 9 pioneers and promoted their tour. Silverman does an awesome job portraying the sassy and charismatic New Yorker. She brings a lot of personality and presence to the character. She really steals a couple of scenes with her performance. In Kramer’s first scene in the movie, she joins Billie Jean and makes her snarky presence known in response to Kramer commenting on how she should not be in the room for the conversation: “Is it because I’m a woman or Jewish?” Of course, she stands her ground and stays right where she is. Her snippy comments throughout the film also provide a lot of comic relief. It is fitting since Silverman is a comedian. Nevertheless, Gladys’s support is crucial to the success of the tour. In addition to the exposure she gives it with her magazine; she garners the support of Virginia Slims, a popular cigarette brand at the time. It agrees to sponsor the tour by paying for all the travel and providing lucrative prize money ($7,500 which is a lot more than the $1,500 offered by the Pacific Southwest Open for women). Of course, Billie Jean’s private circle provides a lot of personal and professional support. The other Original 9 players are obviously crucial. They are a group of strong, energetic, and proud women. They are fun to watch because of their enthusiasm. Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) is my favorite of the group. She is cocky, has swag, and is never afraid to speak her mind. Another great character is Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), Billie Jean’s fashion designer and friend. Cumming is hilarious as the character. Tinling is very eccentric and provides a lot of great and very funny one liners. Nevertheless, he also has a few scenes when he provides meaningful and insightful guidance to Billie Jean. Again, the supporting cast is great. It is led by Sarah Silverman’s Gladys as an important and entertaining supporting character.
In addition to tennis, Billie Jean deals with her sexual awakening when she realizes she is attracted to women. It is a very confusing and uneasy feeling because she is already married to a good man, Larry King (Austin Stowell). In real life, she actually did have an affair with a woman named Marilyn Barnett in the 1970s. In the film, Marilyn is played by Andrea Riseborough and introduced as a hairdresser who King immediately has a sexual attraction to. In real life, the relationship ended contentiously. Barnett sued King in 1981 for “palimony” claiming that she was entitled to assets because of their time together. It was basically extortion because Barnett knew Billie Jean could not afford for her sexual orientation to be made public. Although Barnett lost the lawsuit, Billie Jean lost sponsors and hundreds of thousands of dollars because society did not accept a lesbian athlete at the time. The movie stays completely away from that dark twist. In my opinion, it is justified as it does not fit into the story it is trying to tell and the conflict in real life happens well after the events of the film anyway. Barnett is a decent supporting character and there are some steamy scenes between Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough. Nevertheless, the most intriguing part of the relationship is how Billie Jean struggles with it. Ultimately, being gay is the person she really is. Nevertheless, the realization is very difficult on a personal level. She immediately feels regret and shame for the affair she has with Marilyn. She is afraid of what her parents will think. The overwhelming fear of rejection from families and friends for one’s sexual orientation is not a nightmare I can imagine. The film portrays how confusing and trying that experience must be for someone in the LBGT community. As a public figure, Billie Jean also faces the prospect of public scorn and shame. Moreover, Billie is married to a loving, supporting husband: Larry King [No. Not that Larry King who was a television personality on CNN]. For all those reasons, she has an internal conflict on whether she should accept who she is or fight it. In addition, she needs to keep it hidden publicly because she would no longer be able to champion her cause if the truth came out in that era. The movie does an excellent job detailing the professional and personal sacrifice Billie Jean made to be a pioneer.
In regards to her husband Larry, Austin Stowell does a great job portraying the character. In interviews, Billie Jean has raved about how great of a man Larry is and how supportive he was as a spouse. In fact, he is the one who gave her the idea for a separate women’s tour. In the film, it is a spur of the moment threat she makes to Jack Kramer but it was contrived and thought out by Larry and Billie Jean in real life. Moreover, she has mentioned his dreamy looks when she met him in college. Stowell is a handsome man who captures that aspect of the character too. The movie does a great job with Larry. It really shows how he is dedicated to his wife unconditionally. He does not travel with her because he does not want to distract her from tennis. He manages her business and career from home. When he surprises Billie Jean on the road at her hotel, he stumbles on to one of Marilyn’s bra and deduces the truth. Obviously, he is hurt and fights away tears. No one would blame him if he lashes out in anger at his wife. Instead, he tends to her by icing her knees. He pretends to want to book another room so he can continue coordinating her career without distracting her from her upcoming match even though she realizes he knows the truth. He is still in love with her and hopes she is just going through a phase. Of course, we know it is not and the marriage is eventually doomed. Even though he knows about the affair, he vigorously dedicates his life to Billie Jean throughout the film. It mirrors the real Larry’s dedication to his wife. He understands and willingly accepts that she is the star and he is only the man behind the woman. It is a very atypical position for a man in that era to take. In the 1970s, he is certainly a rare breed. He is definitely a character you cannot help but love. You absolutely empathize with how it kills Billie Jean to hurt him. Although the marriage ultimately fails many years later, the end of the film notes a happy ending. Larry eventually remarries and has a family. Billie Jean and her eventual partner, Ilana Kloss, are the godparents to the children and remain close to Larry to this day. Nevertheless, Billie Jean’s personal struggles with her change in sexual orientation adds another layer of how much she had to go through to champion women.
The film also does an amazing job with Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) as a character. He is more than just the simple minded male chauvinist he pretends to be. The film could have made him a cartoonish, comic book villain. Instead, it develops a complex character and we truly understand why Riggs played the role of the villain. Steve Carrell is the perfect actor for Riggs. He captured the look and mannerisms of Riggs flawlessly. It is also obvious that he had a lot of fun playing the goofball. It is a hilarious performance that entertains and makes you enjoy the character. At the beginning of the film, Riggs is seen unhappy and bored at an office job given to him by his father in law. He watches the television as Billie Jean wins the U.S. Open and continues to capture the imagination and adoration of the tennis world. In contrast, he is a former 3 time Grand Slam champion whose playing career has been long over. As a former star athlete, it is understandable that he has a void left by the high he feels from playing against the highest level of competition in his sport and the attention he got from basking in the spotlight. Moreover, he is a compulsive gambler. There are a couple of scenes that show how addicted he is to betting. At the dinner table, he is dying to accept a bet his young son offers him. Only the disapproval and dirty look he gets from his wife stops him from openly taking it. Of course, he subtly bets with his son when his wife turns her back. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, he attends a meeting and support group to help addicts. Instead of accepting his problem and dealing with it, he is in denial that anyone in that room has issues with addiction. He believes they just need to do what they love better instead of stopping. Riggs is also a childish clown. He has lot of antics. In the match tennis games that he played and bet on, he would offer ridiculous obstacles (e.g. run with two dogs on a leash, have chairs put on his side of the court to run around, etc.) to be put in his way so his competitors would be willing to wager more. In addition, he visits his older, adult son Larry Riggs when he is kicked out of the house by his wife after she catches him gambling again. Larry loves his father but it is clear that he knows he is dealing with a man child. As Bobby’s match tennis games suggest, he is also a hustler and scam artist. He is not a male chauvinist. There is a scene when his wife asks him how long he is going to keep up the charade. However, he is a showman who knows how embrace the mantle of the villain in order to hype up an event so he can get the money and attention he craves. Nevertheless, he is a former top male player. His track record legitimizes the match with Billie Jean as a real Battle of the Sexes. His colorful personality helps promote it into a mega event. The movie helps you understand why Riggs is the perfect person to be the male chauvinist in the moment. Despite the despicable things he says about women, the film develops him into a lovable character because you know he is pretending to play a character and his shenanigans are completely over the top and funny to watch.
I also appreciate the movie detailing how the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs transpires. Riggs is desperate to play her in order to cash in on the circus event. He calls her to sell her on the idea: “Eureka, Billie Jean! It’s Bobby. Bobby Riggs. Listen, I have a great idea. Male chauvinist pig versus hairy legged feminist, no offence. You’re still a feminist, right?” She wisely rejects the offer because she does not want to dignify such a ridiculous sideshow to distract and detract from the real issues of the women’s movement. She is clearly the better player since she is in her prime and he has long passed his professional playing days. It could only hurt the plight of women if he somehow won. She is not going to sellout her causes for money. Consequently, it is an interesting twist in the story when Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) is introduced. She is one of the greatest female players ever and currently holds the most Grand Slam single titles at 24. During the film, both women are top players. Billie Jean has the much bigger name and ranked No. 1 although Court is about to surpass her in the rankings. The difference between the two women are stark. Unlike the rest of the women players, Court is married and raising a small child. Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing and trying to have a family at the same time. Nevertheless, Court does not care to socialize with the other girls and is a bit of a lone wolf. In contrast, Billie Jean is the life of the party and the leader of the pack. Next, there are significant differences on their views of the world. Court is a traditionalist. She does not care for the feminist movement. When she spots Billie Jean with Marilyn, she immediately recognizes that they are having an affair. She has total disgust and disdain for it. She comments to her husband that Billie Jean is ashamed of the affair because homosexuality is a “licentiousness, immorality, and sin”. The line is exactly something the real Margaret Court would say. She is very conservative and religious. She has spoken vehemently and controversially against the LBGT community over the years. In my opinion, the film is brilliant in drawing the contrasts between the two women. Their perspectives also compare the two varying views, traditional and progressive, of what a women’s place in society should be but from the perspective of two strong and accomplished women.
The differences between the two women ultimately play into Riggs’s hustle and how events unfold. Since Billie Jean will not play him, he settles for Court. She is more than willing to take the lucrative appearance fee to play Riggs in an exhibition. Unfortunately, she does not take it seriously nor does she understand the significance of the match. Even if she did, I doubt she would have played hard for a cause she did not even care for. There is a good scene after the match when Court is in the car with her husband listening to the massive reaction to the match on the radio. She is annoyed that the critics are making such a big deal out of the outcome because she notes “It’s just a tennis match”. Riggs cons her from getting her to accept the match to the end of the match. Right before the match begins, He presents her a bouquet of flowers as they greet at the net to lower her guard. She curtsies in response. It is an unwitting, submissive move that only plays into the chauvinistic biases. He also rattles her with a bunch of unconventional lob and drop shots. Court expects traditional tennis play and gets completely off guard with the tactic. It gets her rattled and frustrated as Riggs beats her easily in what is known as the Mother’s Day Massacre since the match was played on Mother’s Day. Throughout the match in the film, Jack Kramer is commentating on the television broadcast and repeatedly mocks women players as incapable of handling pressure. Of course, Billie Jean knows she has no choice but to play and beat Riggs to restore credibility to the women’s game and strike back for the women’s fight for equality. The film utilizes and develops Margaret Court very well. Her match with Riggs makes the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs necessary. Court’s role in the events is told very well.
The conclusion of the film, which includes the promoting of the event and the match, is done extremely well. Both players have fun with the event. Of course, Riggs salivates in it and is carefree. He loves the three ring circus he creates and feeds. He notes that he wants to “put the show back into chauvinist”. Steve Carrell has a blast with Riggs’s antics in this part of the film. He is very fun to watch. Some of them are ones that the real Bobby Riggs pulled in real life such as doing a nude shoot that showcases his middle aged, slightly out of shape body. Another example of a funny antic in the film is when he dresses up as Little Bo Peep and runs around on a tennis court with sheep to hit balls. He understands that his ridiculousness only gets him more media attention. As such, it only encourages him to act like a clown. He does not believe in any of the deplorable points he makes about women (e.g. “I am not saying that women don’t belong on the court. Who would pick up the balls otherwise?). Nevertheless, his male chauvinists base eats it up and he is their champion. Again, he is a showman trying to drum up hype for the match. It works because 90 million television viewers will tune into the event. Nevertheless, he is definitely trying to win. After he lost the match to Billie Jean in real life, there were allegations of Riggs purposely threw the match to settle gambling debts he had with the mob. The film clearly does not believe in that hearsay. There are some good scenes that support its point of view. First, Carrell’s Riggs tells his son Larry that he has a $1 million match lined up with Chris Evert after he beats Billie Jean. I definitely agree that Riggs would have loved to keep on milking the spotlight by challenging all the other top women players for attention and money. Next, he phones in a bet on himself to win. Since he was a gambling addict, I would not be surprised if the real Riggs did the same thing. In fact, I assume he did. Finally, the film shows Riggs depressed after losing the match, which is a point Riggs’s real life son points out in defense of the match throwing rumors. Nevertheless, the victory over Court makes him overconfident and his training is lackadaisical. He takes a variety of vitamins instead of actually training and practicing. He is living it up in the moment and it is comical to watch him do so but he definitely tries his best to win when he is on the court.
Billie Jean’s experience with the event is more of a mix of fun and games balanced by the seriousness of fighting for the respect of women. Nevertheless, she still has fun with some of the charades. She playfully trash talks with Riggs throughout the promotion events: “Keep talking, Bobby. The more nonsense you spout the worse it’s going to be when you lose. Just keep talking.” Emma Stone and Steve Carrell have great chemistry in their back and forth as they reenact actual clips from the past and act out original scenes for the film. You can tell they are really having fun with it. Of course, Billie Jean would not have been so chummy with Riggs if she truly believed he was a male chauvinist. She knows he is a clown playing an act to get attention. In real life, the two become friends after their match and talked frequently until Riggs’s death. Right before he passed, he told her they did a “good thing”. It is a beautiful ending to their story and proves he never believed any of the nonsense he was spewing. It is all a big con to draw the viewing public into the hype of the event. While it is all fun and games for Riggs, Billie Jean has to deal with the seriousness of the moment. In one scene, she makes a stand against the true villain and real chauvinist of the story, Jack Kramer. She threatens to quit the match unless he is removed from the broadcast booth for the match. She rightfully does not want Kramer making disparaging remarks about women on the broadcast. Of course, she also does not want him getting any of the spotlight from the event since he does not support her or the women players. Even though Billie Jean is a superstar in her era, it is unheard of for a woman to make demands. As such, it is a great scene that showcases the strength and persistence of Billie Jean. In addition, she has to deal with the immense pressure of needing to win. The film does an awesome job utilizing old clips of players, commentators, and others making predictions for the match. A lot of them pick Riggs to win. One of the most interesting clips is of a young Chris Evert (future 18 Grand Slam Champion) stating that she watched him beat Margaret Court so she is picking him to win again. In an interview with Evert outside of the film, it is funny watching a wiser, more mature Evert in recent years reflect on the clip. She languishes and laments making the comments. She admits she was so stupid. In her defense, she was very young at the time and should feel proud in her own role in growing the popularity of the sport. Back to the film, Billie Jean understands that losing will set women’s tennis and the broader women’s movement back decades. The weight of the world is a heavy burden. She gets eliminated early in some of the tennis matches on the women’s tour leading up to the match as the pressure takes its toll. The movie and Emma Stone do a great job showing how the strain wears down Billie Jean.
The match is a total spectacle. It is played in a sold out Astrodome in Houston. Again, 90 million people also tune in on television. Bobby Riggs wears a Sugar Daddy jacket and carries a giant Sugar Daddy candy bar prop as he enters to allude to his role as lead male chauvinist and earn a promotion fee from the candy bar company. Billie Jean also plays into the circus by being carried in via a chariot and presenting Riggs with a pig. Nevertheless, she is all business when the match starts. I am thrilled the film did not take any artistic license to make it a close match to have a more dramatic ending. Billie Jean absolutely annihilates Riggs in convincing fashion. Riggs attempts to goof around and use the same antics that threw Court off. However, none of it works. She plays her game and dictates the flow of the match. She has Riggs running all over the court and it is clear he is not in physical condition to keep up with the pace. It is important that the film sticks exactly to how the match developed in real life because it needs to prove that Riggs never belonged on the same court with a world class athlete such as Billie Jean even if he was a former male champion. It gives credibility and vindication to the women’s field. I also enjoy the cutaways to other characters as they react as the match transpires. The jubilation of her parents, Gladys, and the other women players contrasted with the stoic Margaret Court and uneasy Jack Kramer shocked and swallowing his words are great shots mixed in with the rallies during the match between Billie Jean and Riggs. The movie also uses its artistic license to add a good ending scene. After the match, Billie Jean goes into the locker room by herself to reflect on the professional and personal strain and struggle she endured to achieve the victory. She is collecting herself before she joins the celebration. Before she returns to the court, she is greeted by Alan Cumming’s Ted Tinling. She has noticed the affair Billie Jean has with Marilyn. He has noticed that she is going through a personal transformation and afraid of what the world will think if it gets out. He promises her that there will be a day when she can be whoever she wants to be and love whoever she wants to love. For the moment, he encourages her to “dance” [celebrate] today’s triumph and join the party. It is a fitting end and foreshadowing of her continued fight and victories for women and the LBGT community in the future that continues today.
Battle of the Sexes is a brilliant film about the most famous match between world class athletes of different sexes. It is a proper tribute to a legendary pioneer, Billie Jean King, and her professional and personal struggle to champion women at the height of the feminist movement. She understood and lived up to her importance and the significance of the moment. Emma Stone delivers another tremendous performance as Billie Jean. Steve Carrell portrays the goofy and fun Bobby Riggs perfectly. Sarah Silverman leads a strong supporting cast as Gladys Heldman. The film does a great job developing the story and providing the substance behind the spectacle that was the Battle of the Sexes tennis match in 1973. It is much more than just a tennis match. Billie Jean is so much more than just a tennis player. I highly recommend it.