BATTLE OF THE SEXES – Hollywood Finally Gives Us a Good Tennis Movie

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Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

OF BILLIE, BOBBY AND THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Bill Simons

It was 1973. Hair was long and tempers were short. Turmoil prevailed. Trust was shaken. Watergate was shattering our world. Vietnam had just fallen. Women were rising.

The world was on fire. Desperate men had burned draft cards. Men with slim hopes had burned their cities. Now feisty women were burning their bras. “Equality this, equality that, why would we ever pay women the same as men?” says a voice in the just-released movie, “Battle of the Sexes.”

Early in the much-publicized film we see Billie Jean King, World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman and Rosie Casals complaining that they were going to earn a pittance of what the men would receive at an LA tournament. Then, get this, these little ladies actually had the audacity to boycott the tournament and go out and form their own circuit – oh my.

For years, millions had chanted in America’s streets, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Now Ms. King told promoter Jack Kramer, “When we dare to want just a little bit more, a little of what you have, you shunt us away and kick us out of the US Lawn Tennis Association.”

In 1973 Bobby Riggs was a marginalized figure – “some old hustler trying to get a game,” said King. While Riggs’ wife is kicking him out of their house – we see Riggs pleading for her to just throw him some clean underwear and a toothbrush – it’s clear that he can’t kick his gambling addiction. Riggs hilariously turns a Gamblers Anonymous meeting into a farce when he says, “Life’s a gamble, that’s the thrill of it. You aren’t here because you’re gamblers, you’re here because you’re terrible gamblers. Why give up the one thing you’re good at, the one thing we love?…You need to find an angle.” And boy, did Riggs find an angle. It was simple – a winner-take-all $100k match between the self-styled male chauvinist pig and the “hairy-legged feminist” – Ms. King.

Blustering Bobby would inform us that, “the male is the superior animal,” and of course when he subdued King, women would have to stop being so uppity. But Billie dismisses the 55-year-old as “a clown.” She defiantly adds that indeed she shaves her legs and promptly brushes aside Riggs’ challenge.

Still, King admitted, “The one thing Riggs can do is hustle.” So Bobby got No. 1 Margaret Court – who was said to be “a nice old-fashioned girl, who’ll do what she is told” – to accept his challenge. But Court was clueless. A struggling young mother, the $35,000 she’d earn was a fortune. But she had no idea she was being hustled. She thought her meeting with Riggs was just another tennis match. And as Bobby mercilessly crushed her in the infamous Mother’s Day Massacre, Billie Jean could only listen as a broadcaster went off: “It’s not that women can’t play tennis, it’s that they just can’t handle the pressure. Maybe this will put an end to women demanding the same status…Let’s face it, in business, in politics, in sports, whatever, at the very top it’s a man’s game. ” In a flash, Billie knew her fate. She grimaced, she sighed, and told her husband Larry, “Call Bobby” – match on.

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The once-anonymous tomboy daughter of a Long Beach, CA fireman was the unlikeliest of revolutionaries. But the world always seemed to have a way to catch up with BJK and kick her in the pants. When she was 12, LA’s autocratic tennis boss, Perry Jones, booted her out of a group picture because she was wearing shorts (which had been handmade by her mother). Young King bristled. She vowed to change the world.

Fifteen years later, Jack Kramer offered women just one-eighth what the men got. Okay, said BJK, have it your way. I’ll join up with sassy World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman and a cigarette company that needs publicity to create a new women’s circuit. Soon after, a hairdresser came on to her. The fun-loving, pleasure-seeking Marilyn Barnett told Billie, “You’re like a wild animal…It must be intoxicating to be inside your skin…[I’ve] just met the most interesting person.” “I’m not interesting,” replied King. “I’m just interested in tennis.”

The great strength of “Battle” is that the movie isn’t just interested in tennis. It explores a transformative era while resisting the temptation to reduce Riggs to a comic figure. Yes, he’s a loud-talking, pill-popping, Rolls-Royce-winning sugar daddy, who once too often has told his battle-weary wife and skeptical son that he has big plans – really big plans. But Bobby isn’t portrayed as a buffoon. Rather we see him as a flawed, lovable soul with a good heart and a bad problem – he teaches his four-year-old how to gamble, and during therapy sessions, plays blackjack with his shrink.

Never mind that his wife has long been supporting him, Bobby’s a shameless provocateur. He says “Of course we need women on the court. Who else would pick up the balls?” And he adds, “I love women in the bedroom and the kitchen, but these days they want to be everywhere and want to do everything! Where’s it going to end?…It’s got to stop, and Bobby Riggs is the man to do it. Ladies and gentleman, this is Custer’s last stand. It’s the lobber vs. the libber.”

The world essentially viewed King with a condescension that focused on her looks and rebelliousness. Broadcaster Howard Cosell said, “If she got a haircut and got rid of the glasses, you’d have someone vying for a Hollywood screen test.” But in “Battle,” BJK is far from a one-dimensional “libber” who hates guys. Instead, we see Emma Stone, Hollywood’s highest-paid actress, defy the skeptics as she brilliantly embodies the Billie we’ve long loved. She looks like Billie. She talks like Billie. She expresses all of Billie’s distinctive “pressure is a privilege,” “go for it” ‘tude. She’s so competitive, so curious, free-thinking, combative and twitchy.

Most of all, Stone explores King’s layers. Tennis’ Joan of Arc may adore peak experiences, may shatter glass ceilings, may create tennis circuits and important foundations, and may love big moments – yet she often has doubts.

Am I pretty? Am I interesting? Can I win? Can I handle the crush of fame? Most interestingly, we see Billie come to grips with her fading passion for a good man – her husband Larry. We see her opening to a new, mysterious, clandestine world that crackles with a secret passion – an intriguing, dangerous new love interest who excites, yet could sabotage her desire to change the world and topple her from her hard-earned public perch with its bounty of benefits.

Yes, the Battle of the Sexes was a highly-hyped, made-for-TV exhibition. Still, it remains tennis’ most important match ever. Certain moments in sports change everything. Olympian track star Jesse Owens humiliated Adolf Hitler. Jackie Robinson crumbled baseball’s ban on blacks. Ali said he had no problem with those Viet Cong. Mandela used rugby to bring black and white together. And (can we state the obvious?) Billie used the Battle to kick rampant sexism in the balls. Her win was watched by 30,000 in the Astrodome and 48 million on TV, and it kickstarted the tennis boom, the effects of which we still enjoy, and, more importantly, which forever changed gender dynamics. It’s easy to draw a line from the Battle of the Sexes to more recent struggles for marriage equality and transgender rights.

To win the Battle, King called on all her resources. She focused, trained hard and put things in perspective. She got it – she had to prevail.

To tell our game’s most momentous story, Hollywood brought it all together. In “Battle,” we see spot-on casting and inventive acting. Sensitive cinematography captures the rollicking ’70s scene as well as intimate love-making and still moments of reflection. And we see much of the gritty grind of pro tennis, from its loneliness and its powerball, back-room politics to its dreary, on-the-road-again hotel culture.

The film’s husband-and-wife directorial team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who oversaw the enchanting “Little Miss Sunshine”) gives us a reflective and well-paced narrative that sparkles like a WTA rally at crunch time. And it’s all enlivened by a delightful supportive cast of enablers and villains many a fan will know.

Here we see “The Original 9” – the brave, scared, fun-loving, no-task-is too-small sisterhood who created the Virginia Slims circuit. Still, many of them doubted Billie would beat the supposedly unstoppable Riggs. King’s plucky sidekick Rosie (“Don’t call me Tonto”) Casals always had her pal’s back. When Riggs tries to rattle King with flowers, Casals tosses them in the trash.

Ted Tinling, the breezy gay dress designer and historian, shines as a knowing supporter and a devastatingly witty arbiter. When his designs begin to break tennis’ longstanding all-white dress code, he proclaims, “Now, ladies and gentleman, for the first time in the history of tennis here it is! Color!”

King’s (“How’d he get so sensitive?”) husband Larry grasps that his wife is beginning to love women more than she loves him, but for now she must bring a laser-like focus to the task at hand – winning the most important match in tennis history.

Surprisingly, the brassy Sarah Silverman all but steals the show as the sassy, truth-telling publisher and entrepreneur Gladys Heldman. When Heldman boldly barges into an exclusive LA men’s club, she asks Jack Kramer whether the reason he’s shocked that she’s there is “because I’m a woman or because I’m Jew?” When Heldman announces that Virginia Slims will be providing $7,000 in prize money, she turns to a player and quips, “That ought to perk up your lousy second serve.” And just before the Battle she warns King, “If you lose, I’ll never forgive you.”

Alfred Hitchcock told us that a film is only as good as its villain. And Battle gives us a couple. Margaret Court – stiff and distant – is already subsumed in her own judgmental world. The Aussie already views lesbian King as a sinner who’s filled with licentiousness and whose tennis is “falling to pieces.”

But it is the patronizing Kramer who is the film’s heel. The player and promoter who worked so hard to create Open tennis and did so much good for the sport repeatedly rebuffs King with his arrogant, unbudging chauvinism. He refuses to pay women good prize money because men have families, they’re more exciting, they’re faster, stronger, more competitive and, he claims, they sell more tickets. As King and Heldman walk out on him, he says, “Ladies, I’ll miss your pretty faces.” King tells Kramer he’s a gentleman, but that he doesn’t respect women. Twice in three years – with the ferocity of one of her volleys – King gets the best of Kramer.

For decades it’s been asked, “Why can’t Hollywood make a good tennis movie?” Well, ask no more. In this bound-for-the-Oscars movie, we see Hollywood at its best. Yes, it bypasses the long-circulated rumor that, due to his gambling debts, Riggs threw the match. Still, with a wonderful score (think George Harrison and Elton John) it tells tennis’ most important story with a light touch, yet a seamless authority. And miracle of miracles, the tennis scenes are actually acceptable. We leave the theater knowing that one gutsy woman handled “the whole world is watching” pressure far better than a blustery man-child with all his braggadocio. The Battle’s themes and the interplay of a competent, hardworking, no-nonsense woman and a blustery hustler offer hard-to-ignore comparisons with current events.

In the end, this inspiring, feel-good film about change, emotions, struggle and the arc of justice, gives the last word to Ted Tinling. After her game-changing 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 triumph, the exhausted and exhilarated Billie asserts, “Times change.” Ted replies, “You should know – you changed them,” and adds, “Someday we will be free to be who we are and to love who we love.”

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