A Unforgettable Win for Womankind Makes for a Winning Movie

Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton

I was eight years old when Billie Jean King squared off against Bobby Riggs in 1973.  ABC aired the match, with much spectacle preceeding the tennis.  Riggs entered the Houston Astrodome in a Sugar Daddy jacket, accompanied by cheerleaders.  King was seated on a gold throne, carried in by muscular bare chested men.  I remember the match and much of the silliness that came before it – Riggs playing tennis dressed as Bo Peep, his relentless sexism in the press.  None of it seemed funny to me at the time.  As a burgeoning young feminist I awaited the outcome of this match with deadly earnestness.  Perhaps I felt, as Battle of the Sexes would lead you to believe, that this tennis match was a referendum not only on the comparative skills of two tennis pros, but on the worthiness of women to receive equality and justice.  If Billie Jean could just win this match…

Co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton  (Little Miss Sunshine) certainly do play up the feminist aspects of this story.  Billie Jean King was already a women’s icon before defeating Bobby Riggs.  In an era when female tennis players were expected to be either faultlessly ladylike (Margaret Court) or cute (Chris Everett), King was neither.  She was no nonsense, driven, steely.  And she really was a champion for the rights of female athletes.  When the U.S. Tennis Association wouldn’t give women professionals the same pay as men, King and Gladys Heldman, the founder of World Tennis Magazine, created a separate women’s tour.  With Philip Morris’s backing, it became the Virginia Slims Tour and gained popularity that taught the USTA a thing or two about the appeal of women’s professional tennis.

For many Americans, though, it is the match against Bobby Riggs for which Billie Jean King is best remembered.  King was 29, Riggs was 55 and a has-been.  He defeated top ranked Margaret Court in an exhibition match, though, prompting King to accept his challenge for a $100,000 winner-takes-all televised match.  King had something to prove.  So did Riggs, who had an unquenchable appetite for attention and the good life, and seemingly, a conviction that men were better athletes than women.

Did Riggs really believe that?  Were all of his cracks about the inferiority of women and their right place in the world (bedroom and kitchen, natch) sincere?  It’s hard to tell in Battle of the Sexes.  Steve Carell can’t quite shed his onscreen charm and seems less seedy than the Riggs I remember.  Here he is a comic showman before the public, and a restless, needy, inveterate gambler in his private life.  He is financially supported by his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who tries to quell the gambling and Riggs’ indulgent parenting of their young son.  If Priscilla seems oppressive, it’s worth noting that she’s married to an impulsive manchild.  It’s difficult not to seem like a harsh parent if your spouse is perpetually juvenile.

For Riggs, a match against King is pure publicity.  He certainly wants to win, but once the perks of celebrity begin to roll in he lacks the discipline to even train consistently for the match.

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), on the other hand, has more than enough discipline for training.  She is dealing with a distraction of her own, though – a hairdresser  named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  Early in Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean and Marilyn meet for the first in a salon and their connection is immediate and intense (perhaps too intense – this is one of the few places where Battle of the Sexes seems to be laying things on a bit thick).  Billie Jean is married to Larry King (Austin Stowell), a loyal husband who understands that he takes a backseat to his wife’s professional career.  Finding herself in love with a woman seems to take Billie Jean King by surprise, but Marilyn is soon traveling with the Virginia Slims tour as the tour stylist, and (somewhat) secretly living as King’s lover.

In real life, Billie Jean King remained closeted until she was outed in the early 1980s, by Barnett. who was then suing King for financial support.  King lost $2 million in endorsement money in one day, and would try to regain her privacy before eventually becoming a gay icon.  She now lives openly with a female partner, Ilana Kloss, and even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.  When it comes to sexuality, at least, times have changed. Coming out was nearly impossible for a professional athlete in 1973.  King may have been a champion for women’s rights, but she was not yet ready to be a champion of gay rights as well.  And so she continued to live as a married woman while in a relationship with Marilyn Barnett.  We may be able to sympathize with the social pressures behind that decision, but one of the strengths of Battle of the Sexes is its willingness to show the cost.  Larry King is kind and supportive even when wounded.  He remains committed to helping Billie Jean when he knows that she’s being unfaithful to him, and is restrained and respectful toward Barnett.  Marilyn Barnett, on the other hand, seems indifferent to Larry’s suffering and less concerned than he is about Billie Jean’s career.  This is not a romanticized picture of adultery, no matter how inevitable or important it was for Billie Jean King to come to terms with her sexuality.  The warm depiction of Larry King meshes nicely with the humane treatment given to Priscilla Riggs.   There are no easy villains here, except perhaps for USTA director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) a much more earnest and powerful chauvinist than Riggs could ever hope to be.

Stone and Carell don’t impersonate the historical figures at the center of Battle of the Sexes, but they evoke them.  Stone is solid as both a disciplined, resolute athlete and a woman dazzled and overwhelmed by her waking sexuality.  Carell is energy and chaos, a combination of egotism and shame.  Ironically, his self promotion in the 1970s obscured his earlier tennis career.  As a child I didn’t know that Bobby Riggs had once been a Wimbledon and U.S. National Champion.  I just knew him as the man who put “the show back in chauvinism.”

What about that chauvanism?  Riggs says some terrible things about women in the course of this film.  Should we dislike him?  Pity him?  Laugh along with the joke?  It’s hard to get too worked  up over this court jester in 2017, when we have a president who has said much, much worse things about women than what was said by Bobby Riggs.  It’s disheartening to reflect on how little has changed when it comes to gender.  Public figures still spout degrading nonsense about women.  The pay gap for female athletes is still shockingly wide.   That win at the Astrodome may have been a powerful tonic to the feminists of 1973 – and it’s crowd pleasing on screen in 2017.  But as for actually proving women deserve respect and equal pay?  We’re still waiting for that win.