Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 7.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy ably shows that “The Battle of the Sexes” that climaxes this bio film was part of a much bigger story in the struggle for gender equality. He even throws in a subplot (though also important) of the longing for LGBTQ freedom. Thanks to the skill of co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton and the talented cast, the liberation theme becomes a very moving part of the story.
The film begins in near the beginning of the 70’s with former tennis champion Bobby Riggs watching top-seeded Bill Jean King on TV as she receives a congratulatory phone call from President Nixon for her victory. Then the film switches to Billy Jean and her fellow women players upset by the financial terms imposed by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a former champion player and now head of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. She points out that the men’s purse for an upcoming tournament is eight times that of the women’s. Condescendingly explaining what he thinks should be obvious, Kramer says that men are more watchable, and thus draw bigger crowds than women.
Refusing to accept such demeaning terms, Billy Jean and nine other women players boycott the tournament, which leads to their being expelled from the LTA and being stripped of their rankings. Soon, however, their chain-smoking manager publicist Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) announces to them that she has secured financing from the cigarette company a tour to be called the Virginia Slims Tournament. (Oh, those innocent days when most people accepted the propaganda of the cigarette companies that their deadly product was benign!)
As members of the newly formed Women’s Tennis Association circuit, the women travel together and share rooms at cheap motels because of their reduced financial straits. During this period Billy Jean meets hair dresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), the latter awakening in the married tennis player her dormant attraction to other women. The other women pick up on the special feelings the two express toward one another, with the also married Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) especially upset. A very religious person, Margaret shares with her husband her disgust at the “filth” of the relationship.
During this time there are cutaways to Bobby and his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), in conflict over his gambling exploits. She tells him, “You’re like a little kid, you know that?” to which he replies, “Well, you’re good with kids.” Dissatisfied by the nothing (in his eyes) executive job he has been given at her father’s company, Bobby spends his nights away from his wife as he hustles up games and gambles incessantly with wealthy men. The scene in which he wins a luxury car, only then to deny ownership when the chauffeur shows up at the door and attempts to turn over the keys as Priscilla is looking on, is funny. However, she is not amused, she laying down an ultimate either to quit his gambling or move out. He even attends Gamblers Anonymous, but when he speaks, instead of confessing his addiction, he delivers a speech extolling the virtues of the vice.
Bobby has won three times at Wimbledon, and though now past his prime at 55, he still thinks he is better than the best of the women players. He challenges Billy Jean to an exhibition match, but she turns him down. Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) takes him up on the offer, but goes down in a humiliating defeat. Billy Jean now feels compelled to play him—and the huge fee she’s guaranteed certainly is a plus, despite all the circus pageantry Bobby engages in that her friends think is so demeaning.
Billy Jean knows that the future of women in tennis hangs on this unseemly match. She trains hard, whereas Bobby engages in shenanigans that the media loves, including publicly taking a host of vitamins under the supervision of a nutrition guru he has engaged.
The match almost does not take place for a reason I will leave for you to discover—it is literally just hours or minutes before the televised match is to be beamed throughout the world. Her demand is met, and so 90 million viewers around the world watch as Howard Cosell and others comment on the court action. The smart money has been bet on Bobby, but Billy Jean’s skill and strategy soon prove that his boasting was that of a paper tiger.
The actual match is covered briefly, enough to show Billy Jean’s skill at placing the ball either out of reach or forcing Bobby to run all over the court, thus quickly sapping his strength. Her victory– 6-4, 6-3, 6-3- becomes a major step in the growing campaign for the equal treatment of the sexes, at least in sports.
Interspersed in the pretournament events are romantic scenes between Billy Jean and her new lover. Marilyn travels with the women as the team’s hair stylist. Their love affair becomes contentious, first, as mentioned earlier, with the team member s, and then with husband Larry King (Austin Stowell), who has been her coach, trainer and manager. After being away on business for a period, he rejoins his wife at their hotel and discovers their attraction to each other. Billy Jean, knowing that their affair would destroy her career, tells her lover that tennis must be her first love during her prime years. She dares not come out and admit her sexual preference.
Larry, though feeling betrayed, loves Billy Jean enough so that he continues to work with her, providing the support she needs to overcome so many obstacles.
They will not divorce until 1986, it apparently being an amicable one in that she and a new lover will serve as godfather to the children that Larry sires with his new wife. By this time Billy Jean has broken up with Marilyn and partnered with former tennis player Ilana Kloss. In 1981 Marilyn sues her partner, revealing that Billy Jean is a lesbian. This causes considerable loss in revenue when, as Billy Jean had feared, many of her sponsors drop her. But it frees the athlete to become a major spokesperson for gender equality—before her no major athlete had admitted to being gay. Perhaps the most touching line in the film is the wistful statement by the team’s openly gay wardrobe designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who tells her near the end of the film, “Someday we will free to be who we are, and to love whom we love, but now…”
The film provides us the service of showing us how far we have come in gender matters. The male chauvinist views expressed by Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer seem cartoonish today, and yet we can see in news clips that these are not the concoctions of a Hollywood scriptwriter. They actually said them, and the bizarre pregame incidents of September 20, 1973, at the Houston Astrodome really took place—Bobby, dressed in a yellow jacket advertising his sponsor Sugar Daddy and giving to Bill Jean a large cutout of the candy bar, really did have a bevy of cheerleaders with the letters of his name emblazoned on their breasts, and he did accept from Billy Jean a piglet as a present. The circus atmosphere was enhanced by their extravagant grand entrances, he in a chariot and she in a sedan chair born by four male hunks, that P.T. Barnum would have admired.
Conservative people of faith will have difficulty with the filmmakers’ sympathetic dealing with Billy Jean’s same sex relationship. I myself was put off by her too-easy betrayal of her marriage vows. Regardless of the sex of the lover, the bedding down with someone other than one’s spouse is morally unacceptable. But then, this film is not meant to depict a saint, just a woman who, under great pressure, has made two great contributions to the cause of human liberation—first, by defeating a blatantly misogynist male establishment, she continued the struggle begun so long ago by a Jewish woman named Martha, to whom Jesus gave us approval when she left her sister Mary in the kitchen to learn at his feet, thus advancing women closer to equal treatment. Second, once forced out of the closet (this came after the events in the film), she advanced the LGBT cause–this in the realm of athletics. On further consideration, there is a third great contribution, the advancement of tennis itself. The match ballyhooed as “The Battle of the Sexes was held at the Houston Astrodome, packed with 30,472 people on Sept. 20, 1973, the largest crowd ever for a tennis match. Lots to cheer for and to discuss in this well-crafted film!
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the November issue of Visual Parables.