Tennis is a Cruel Mistress
Those of us who lived through the "Battle of the Sexes"—the 1973 televised tennis exhibition match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs proved nothing about tennis and the relative ability of men and women to play it—remember the hype and hoopla of it, rather than its relative merits of any real "battle of the sexes." King was 29 and at the top of her game. Riggs was 55 and at the top of his game in 1939, when he won the Grand Slam. But, Riggs was a gambler and a hustler, and he took advantage of the recent split of nine of the top female tennis players from the USTLA over the pay discrepancy between men and women players to fan the flames of sexism that were inherent in a sport that had its roots in social clubs that had discrimination of sex and religion in its by-laws. It was a calculated gamble. He won publicity either way, and, any overflow benefiting tennis and women's tennis, in particular, was an unintended benefit to those parties.
The "event" was fictionalized before; in 2001, ABC, the network that originally made hay on the televised broadcast commissioned a version "When Billie Beat Bobby" that starred Holly Hunter and Ron Silver (respectively). In the time since, much more has come out about King's personal life at the time and that becomes a major plot-point in Battle of the Sexes, the new version of the story "from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine" (that would be Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton*-it isn't mentioned that they also directed Ruby Sparks, presumably because it wasn't "the indie hit" their previous film was). The result is a fairly straight-forward adaptation (King was a consultant and a remarkably fair one, it turns out) that manages to show the effects of marginalization—whether sex, sexuality, or age (not that we need a demonstration of it these days)—and Society's penchant for exploitation and for waking up and considering larger issues...if there's a buck in it.
At the start—the timeline is crunched, somewhat—Billie Jean King (Emma Stone excellently not depending on her strengths) has won the Grand Slam and is the most well-known women's tennis player on the circuit. She's pulling in crowds. Despite that, tour promoter Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman) refuses to raise the stakes of the women's tournament in line with the men's, which, by rights, should be eight times higher than what he's offering. With World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman (a shining Sarah Silverman), the two decide to create their own tournament, signing on for a token amount of one dollar apiece, attracting enough attention to be sponsored by Virgina Slims. 15-love for the women.
|The leading women's tennis players sign on to a tournament for $1 apiece.|
She refuses, but changes her mind when Margaret Court, also in the league, accepts the challenge and loses in what became known as "The Mother's Day Massacre." King decides to take him, seeing as how she must now defend women's tennis in the eyes of the ticket-buying public. King is used to being in the public eye, but the intense scrutiny that the Riggs dare focuses on her is something she isn't quite prepared for. And there's another complication—the married King has begun an affair with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), who travels with the tour. The intense scrutiny of an out-of-wedlock affair, let alone a lesbian affair)
This part of the story has never been told (and it's the reason Faris and Dayton wanted to make the movie) and sheds a light on the tenor of the times, the stakes at risk, and how easily a capriciously started challenge can turn deadly serious. Barnett's presence is hushed up, hidden, and fairly buried lest it cast an easily-target on women's tennis, women's roles, and feminism, already being given a pretty good beating in the public maelstrom around the event. The interesting thing is that Barnett, and the pressures she was under, are given a very sympathetic eye in the film, despite the fact that Barnett sued King for palimony in 1981, effectively "outing" the tennis star in a very public way. But, the affair is given a romantic edge and there's not a hint of animosity in the way Barnett is portrayed. That is both charitable and practical, because the true focus on the film should be the prejudices across all courts that women faced then and face now.
|Mistress and Husband meet cute in an elevator before realizing that they have a loved one in common.|
One should mention that the film does a fine job of presenting all these quandaries and challenges without getting more preachy than the evidence already suggests—they stick very close to events as they actually happened, and given the media coverage there is more than enough evidence to vouch for its authenticity. Some of the effects work to achieve it is amazing—they really have Howard Cosell with his arm around the woman playing Rosie Casals? And they do a great job of combining archival footage with match recreations that don't skimp on the dramatics on the court.
* The writer is Simon Beaufoy, who did a few scripts for Danny Boyle (including Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours) who produced this—but didn't direct as his sequel to Trainspotting became viable. Beaufoy also wrote The Full Monty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.