December 12, 2017
Battle of the Sexes is a much better film than Bjorg vs McEnroe – but don’t expect it to be all about tennis.
Above all this sensitive, sensual, funny movie revolves around Billie Jean King’s realisation that she is gay.
Meet King today and you feel her power and self-assurance straight away. Billie Jean back then seems to have experienced moments of touching self-doubt over the enormity of the journey ahead.
Emma Stone treats us to a towering performance as King. And Simon Beaufoy’s brilliant screenplay hits the spot every time. When every line is a winner, you know you’re watching something memorable.
It’s an interesting irony that the main focus should be King’s sexuality, though; because the film also makes it clear that tennis itself is what mattered most in King’s life in 1973, when she played Bobby Riggs in front of a record 30,472 spectators at the Houston Astrodome – and a TV audience of some 90 million.
Billie Jean was 29 and Riggs was 55, though it’s worth remembering he had just destroyed the world number one, Margaret Court in what was described as the “Mothers’ Day Massacre”.
We shouldn’t forget that Riggs had real pedigree. He had done the “Wimbledon Triple” back in 1939, when he won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles. The Second World War interrupted his march to greatness. And even in middle-age he craved the attention he felt he deserved.
King stepped up to show the self-proclaimed “male chauvinist” that women’s tennis deserved respect and, ultimately, equal prize money to the men.
But we never get to hate Riggs, joyfully played by Steve Carell. That’s because he doesn’t really hate women or even disrespect them – indeed he begs his wife to come back, because he knows how much he needs her. To Bobby, the chauvinistic persona is just theatre.
No, the true villains of the piece are US tennis administrator Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman), who really does have a contemptuous view of women; and Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who really does have a contemptuous view of gays.
Back to the big match for a moment. Was Riggs complicit in his own defeat? Many think he was, perhaps in order to pay off gambling debts to the mob.
And here’s the thing: the scenes from the Riggs-King showdown were painstakingly recreated for the movie by proper tennis players – rising star Kaitlyn Christian and her older adversary, Vince Spadea.
So what? Well, the movie often shows Bobby Riggs helpfully spooning the ball into the path of Billie Jean’s volleys and smashes. One newspaper report from the time also described how Riggs “unaccountably fed King’s appetite” for backhand volleys and smashes.
Did Bobby throw the match ? Or was this a case of total tactical panic in the face of an opponent he had underestimated? Riggs always claimed he had lost in good faith. And he and King remained friends until his death.
‘We did something big together,’ he said on his deathbed, as he and King declared their love for each other as human beings.
Indeed they did. Rather like the Mandela Rugby World Cup final in the uncertain South Africa of 1995, the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match was a sporting event that moved the world into a new era.
It didn’t matter how the woman won in Houston. It was only important that she did, so that equality could be achieved.
So why are we left with more of the personal stuff in our minds than the climactic tennis contest? Because the personal stuff always upstages the tennis in “Battle of the Sexes.”
How lucky we are, therefore, that Emma Stone and Andrea Risenborough, who plays King’s first gay lover, Marilyn Barnett, are so outstanding in their roles.
And how lucky also that Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband, is played in such a moving, understated way by Austin Stowell, aided by that stunning Beaufoy screenplay, with all its masterful subtext.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris must also take credit for getting the balance right in their portrayal of a delicate love triangle. This feat might have been beyond even the most skilled circus performer, yet somehow it is achieved with emotional generosity and effortless ease by this fine movie.
Too bad that the real story later saw Barnett sue King for a share of her fortune (and fail), a move which outed Billie Jean in the early 1980s.
But movie-makers know how to tell dramatic, important stories without cluttering the screen with inconvenient truths. Riggs knew too. That could be why he never fully explained those lame scoop-shots, straight into the path of King’s ferocious racquet.