Released in theaters
- Sept, 2017
- 84% – Rotten Tomatoes Critics
- 76% – Rotten Tomatoes Movie Goers
- 75% – Roger Koehler
- Emma Stone as Billie Jean King
- Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs
- Sarah Silverman as Gladys Feldman
- Bill Pullman as Jack Kraemer
- Alan Cumming as Ted Tingling
- Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
This movie recounts the events leading up to one of the most memorable, and still the most attended (30,472 at the Houston Astrodome) tennis events ever. It was referred to in 1973 as the “Battle of the Sexes” because it pitted 55 year-old, former Wimbledon champion Robert (Bobby) Riggs against the then current women’s #1 player, Billie Jean King.
The movie is well done and ends with the actual tennis event, whereas Billie Jean King’s playing career, and her personal and professional struggles, continued on to this day. The final tennis sequence is somewhat anticlimactic, and lacks the drama that the film tries to evoke, since most everyone obviously knows the outcome ahead of time. But what I found most powerful is the scene almost immediately after the match, when Billie Jean (played very competently by Emma Stone) goes into the locker room on her own and breaks down with the enormity of what just took place.
That is what this movie really is about. Riggs only had some of his own money and his personal gambling reputation on the line when that match was played. But he was a hustler and an inveterate gambler and after all, in the end gamblers win some and lose some.
But for Billie Jean, she had the weight of an entire current and future generation of women on her shoulders. Not just for tennis, either. She was fighting for, and representing, the rights of women to compete athletically in all sports, and at all levels, on a much more even footing with men.
As if all that were not enough, Billie Jean was also dealing with her newfound sexuality, and her new relationship with Marilyn Barnett. That not only obviously affected her relationship with her husband and agent, Larry King, but also threatened to endanger the sponsorships that were so necessary for the survival of the new women’s circuit she was in the process of helping to form.
In 1970, women pros were told unconditionally, by tournament director Jack Kraemer, that there was no way that women “could” ever be paid anywhere near the same amount as men to play professional tennis in an upcoming California tournament. Billie Jean and eight other women pros (The Original 9 as they have come to be known) boycotted that tournament and formed their own circuit. Their initial sponsor was Virginia Slim’s cigarettes.
As an example of the disparity of prize money at that time, in the 1970 Italian Open tennis tournament, men’s champion Ilie Nastase received $3,500. Billie Jean was the women’s champion at that same tournament and she won $600!
Eventually, another 40 women’s players joined the Virginia Slim’s tour, including upcoming teen star Chris Evert. The Virginia Slims eventually led to the current Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Chris Evert did not initially join the rebel tour. She also famously predicted that Riggs would win the match with Billie Jean.
Emma Stone does a nice job in her lead role as Billie Jean King. As with Carell, the physical resemblance is spot on. Her training to make her look competent in the tennis segments was very successful. The tennis sequences in the movie, including the final battle between her and Riggs, are filmed entirely (or perhaps almost entirely) with Stone and Carell playing – not actual footage from the match.
Steve Carell has become a bit of an established second tier movie star (including The 40 year-old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Despicable Me, Crazy Stupid Love) – a long way from his beginnings as one of Jon Stewart’s crazy stable of reporters on the Daily Show, which included (among many) Stephen Colbert, John Oliver (Last Week Tonight), Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee. Carell’s portrayal of the gambling hustler, Bobby Riggs, is understated, when he could easily have gone way over the top given the actual character he was playing. His physical resemblance to Riggs is remarkable.
Regarding some of the movie’s supporting characters …
Sarah Silverman, much better known as a comedienne, plays Gladys Feldman who helped organize the fledgling women’s circuit, and who obtained their initial sponsor – Phillip Morris and Virginia Slims.
I know Jack Kraemer, played by Bill Pullman, from his success as a men’s tennis player (10-time major champion during the late 1940’s) . I generally admired his commentary when I used to watch and listen to Jack, Donald Dell and Bud Collins on public television’s early telecasts of tennis back in the 1960’s before tennis entered the “Open” era in 1968. However, I also knew of the problems that Kraemer had with Billie Jean, and with the beginning of the Virginia Slim’s women’s tennis circuit.
In this movie, Kraemer really comes across as a self-serving, chauvinistic prick. In reality, Jack played a pivotal role in bringing about the “Open” era of tennis and vastly improving the prize money … for the men. Unfortunately, he firmly believed that the men deserved the money because they were better players than women, and they were the ones who were putting fans in the seats. Billie Jean begged to differ.
Alan Cumming played former pro tennis player and dress designer Ted Tingling, who was the designer for the new women’s tour. Tingling was also a personal friend and confidant of Billie Jean. You may recognize Alan better from his role as campaign manager Eli Gold on The Good Wife.
For fans of NCIS: Los Angeles, Detective Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen) plays Bobby Riggs’ long time coach, Lornie Kuhle, and he looks and sounds much like you would expect Marty Deeks to look and sound.
The film’s directors – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – also previously directed Steve Carell in their first feature film – the academy award winning Little Miss Sunshine in 2006.
Being somewhat familiar with having watched the actual Battle of the Sexes tennis match when it was telecast on ABC in 1973, the play in the movie really rings true. I can remember how exhausted Riggs became and how that showed in his movements, particularly later in the match.
The actual event back in 1973 …
As I alluded to earlier, I think what comes across so well in the movie is the tremendous burden that was on Billie Jean’s shoulders. She had to take on Riggs in this match, which she originally wanted no part of. But she was forced to when rival, and then #1 women’s player Margaret Court from Australia, accepted Riggs’ offer for a match after King had turned him down. Court went on to lose that match 6-2, 6-1 in what came to be known as the Mother’s Day Massacre.
King also bore the burden of her fellow women tennis players who put their trust in her completely when they formed their own fledgling women’s tennis circuit to compete with the USTA (United States Tennis Association) then called the USLTA (United States Lawn Tennis Association). In doing so, the women had been barred from competing in major tournaments, such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Regarding King’s coming to terms with her sexuality, she would end her relationship with Marilyn Barnett in 1979. At that point, she had still not admitted her homosexuality. However, Barnett sued her in 1981 for a portion of her assets and, in the process “outed” King at that time as well. Barnett used the “palimony” defense that had been used successfully in other relationships that did not involve marriage. However, at that time, there was no legal protection between same-sex partners.
King won the lawsuit even though the outing was personally devastating. In fact, King says that she would have preferred to have retired earlier from tennis but she was forced to continue playing to earn money, some of which she had lost when sponsors dropped her after the lawsuit.
Billie Jean eventually settled into a long term relationship that still lasts to this day with Llana Kloss, a fellow women’s tennis player from South Africa. In the post movie credits, it says that Billie Jean and Llana are godparents to the children that Larry King has from his marriage after Billie Jean. That certainly speaks to the strength of the bond that Billie Jean and Larry continued to have, especially in light of all that transpired in their own marriage.
I can remember when I was in high school in the late 60’s and how high school girls did not have the ability to play in sanctioned, organized sports like the boys did. They were relegated to playing in what was known, at least in our area, as the GAA – Girl’s Athletic Association – not a whole lot more organized than simply playing sports in gym class. Title 9 began to change that in 1972 and Billie Jean’s and her fellow tennis pro’s efforts certainly went even further on behalf of women’s athletic rights.
Billie Jean King is truly a pioneer –not just for sports, and not even just for women, whether or not the men of 1973 knew it. This film is a wonderful tribute to the career, the personal struggle, and the life defining moment of an amazing woman.
Sports Illustrated interview with Billie Jean King and Emma Stone …
Editor’s note: I was SO pleased when she kicked his ass!