Billie Jean King is one of my idols, and there are very few people living today that I respect and admire more. Not only is she one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, but she started the women’s tennis tour and world team tennis! She brought women’s rights to the forefront in her famous tennis match with Bobby Riggs on October 20, 1973. Even now, Billie Jean is still a “major player” in the fight for LGBT rights. Throughout her life, she has tirelessly engaged in numerous activities which have “liberated” tennis from its origins as a sport exclusively for the rich and privileged, so that it is now readily available to nearly anyone.
Tennis was not a very popular sport in the early 1970’s. The men and women have a combined tour, run by tennis legend Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). The next major tennis tournament will pay the winning man $12,000, but the winning woman only $1,500. Billie Jean (Emma Stone) objects to the absurd prize money inequality, but Jack won’t budge. Billie Jean then revolts, taking most of the best women tennis players with her and starts up the women’s tennis tour. The move took a lot of guts, and it was quite uncertain whether the women’s tour would succeed.
Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is now 55. He had won grand slam tournaments and was in the Tennis Hall of Fame. He is a gambling addict and a male chauvinist. He’s also a funny guy with a gift of self-promotion. Bobby gets the idea to challenge a top woman tennis player to a tennis match to prove that men are far superior to women in tennis (and just about everything else – except cooking and house-keeping). Billie Jean at first rejects the idea as a circus, but Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) agrees and loses to Bobby in straight sets. After this blow to women’s equality, Billie Jean agrees to the tennis match, which is promoted as the “Battle of the Sexes.” There was tremendous pressure on Billie Jean to win, since the credibility of the women’s tour as well as the larger issue of women’s rights was at stake.
What makes the movie even more compelling, however, is the focus on Billie Jean’s and Bobby’s conflicts in their personal lives. Billie Jean, who, up to this time, was happily married to Larry King (Austin Stowell), becomes aware she has strong sexual feelings towards her hairdresser, Marilyn (Andre Riseborough). Bobby is in denial about his gambling addiction, and his wife (Elizabeth Shue) is just about at the end of her rope, even though she still loves him.
The film tells the story well. The roles by Stone and Carell don’t have enough range to give them AA nominations, but they are both terrific. The movie explores an interesting and complex time in American history, and I enjoyed re-visiting it.