By: Lana K. Wilson-Combs
Women’s tennis has come a long way. We can thank trailblazers like Althea Gibson
and Billie Jean King
Gibson was the first African-American female athlete to break the color line of international tennis and win the French Open in 1956, followed by wins at Wimbledon and the U.S Nationals/U.S. Open (1957).
King, won a phenomenal 20 Wimbledon championships, 39 Grand Slam titles and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
Throughout her career, King used her platform to help fight for equality and raise the profile of women in sports.
King garnered world-wide attention in 1973 when she soundly defeated retired, tennis champion and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs. It was an historic match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes” and it is also the title of the new movie which chronicles King’s life both on and off the court.
Directed by husband and wife Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks”) and written by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,”), “Battle of the Sexes”
stars Oscar winner Emma Stone (“La La Land”) in another impressive performance as Billie Jean King. Steve Carell (“The Big Short”) is excellent too as the brash Bobby Riggs.
While “Battle of the Sexes” does wade into the politics of sports, it’s not heavy-handed and balances its message in an entertaining manner.
It’s 1971 and we see the 29-year-old Billie Jean King on top of the tennis world. Yet, she and many other women tennis players aren’t getting the respect or pay they deserve.
In fact, when King learns that Jack Kramer, (a snarky and terrific Bill Pullman, TV’s “The Sinner”) who heads the United States Lawn Tennis Association, is holding a tournament and there’s a huge disparity between what the female winner will earn ($1,500) and the male winner (a cool $12,000), King is angry and insists on equal pay.
Jack scoffs at her idea. Afterall, he tells her that “people come to see men play because they’re the bigger draw.”
So, King decides to take matters into her own hands. With the help of public relations guru and World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, “The Book of Henry”), King, along with the support of her husband Larry, (Austin Stowell, “Bridge of Spies” and “Whiplash”), launches her own tournament and goes on tour.
It’s a bold move that didn’t go unnoticed. Although Jack Kramer (Pullman) expelled King and team players, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee, “CHIPS”) Rosie Casals, (Natalie Morales, TV’s “BoJack Horseman”) from the U.S.L.T.A, over time it proved to be a huge success especially when corporate sponsors like Philip Morris, the manufacturers of Virginia Slims cigarettes signed on and became an integral part of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour.
As the tour was taking shape and King was becoming the public face for women’s equality, behind the scenes she was battling with personal demons. Although married, the tennis champion became romantically involved with her hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, “The Death of Stalin” and TV’s “Black Mirror”).
While King and Marilyn’s relationship is significant particularly considering the times and that King was married, the movie focuses more than it needs to on their budding romance. Consequently, it nearly overshadows the hyped tennis match itself which was also a very big deal.
Bobby Riggs, (a fabulous Carell) the 55-year-old semi-retired tennis star was trying to make himself relevant again. Riggs was a piece of work. His antics may have been entertaining to his tennis club buddies, but his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, Upcoming, “Death Wish”) was tired of his absentee parenting and excessive gambling.
Although Riggs had already convincingly beaten Margaret Court, (McNamee ), he viewed a match with King as setting the record straight once and for all that men were superior to women in every way and that a woman’s place was in the home and not on a tennis court.
Carell plays Riggs to the hilt. “I put the ‘show’ back in chauvinism!” he says during a press conference.
While Carell’s performance in “Foxcatcher” never seemed to get the tone and rhythm quite right, here he does.
Riggs’ bluster and antics were over the top and I couldn’t help but think that he would fit right in on Twitter and social media today.
There are also a couple of quieter, reflective moments in the movie that Carell just nails as well.
When King accepts Riggs’ challenge to play on national TV (ABC) with a $100,000 payout at stake, it’s on. The “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match was held at the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973 and drew 90 million TV viewers. That’s phenomenal even today especially when you consider there were only three major network television stations; ABC, CBS and NBC. Think about it. More people watched King wipe the court with Riggs than the moon landing.
And for a film that covers so much ground, “Battle of the Sexes” does an excellent job of keeping everything on point and blending archival footage of the actual events. Celebs such as George Foreman, Ricardo Montalban, Telly Savalas and Chris Everett are shown giving their predictions on who will win the match.
The late Howard Cosell is in rare form too commenting on Kings looks and states that “If she’d grow her hair and lose those glasses, Billie Jean King might even be pretty.”
Popping off like that would get you fired from network TV now, but it didn’t raise an eyebrow in 1973. Maybe it did, but Cosell’s broadcasting career didn’t suffer at all from it.
If there’s a message to be had from “The Battle of the Sexes” it’s that women have come a long way baby, but the battle for true equality rages on.
Be sure to catch my N2Entertainment.net movie talk segment on the Kitty O'Neal Show Fridays at 6:40 p.m. on radio station KFBK 1530 AM and 93.1 FM.
Watch This Trailer For "BATTLE OF THE SEXES"
Lana K. Wilson-Combs is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association (BFCA), the Black Reel Awards Voting Academy and a Nominating Committee Voting Member for the NAACP Image Awards.