I’m old enough to remember when 55-year-old Bobby Riggs challenged 29-year-old Billie Jean King to a tennis match, claiming he could beat any woman. This was in the early 1970s when Billie Jean was the rising star of women’s tennis and had just become the first sportswoman ever to earn more than $100,000 in a single year.
But I’m young enough that I don’t remember Bobby Riggs being a champion himself back in the 1940s. I’d never even heard of him!
The story starts when King and Rosie Casals and other women players walked out of the United States Lawn Tennis Association because of the insultingly low fees paid to them. A feisty, chain-smoking dynamo by the name of Gladys Heldman set up an alternative, all-women tournament and eventually secured the sponsorship of Virginia Slims. I remember this well, because it was cool then in girly circles to smoke them. Yes, children, it was a tobacco company! I know, I know, very bad, but we were young and foolish in those days.
King initially turned Riggs down because she dismissed him as a clown and a hustler. He was, but he comes across as a big kid really: an inveterate gambler, a playful hands-on dad, a loving if somewhat feckless husband. His claim to be a ‘male chauvinist pig’ may have had more to do with media-savvy promotion than with his actual attitude to women, judging by….many things. See below.
Curiously, I’d forgotten about the role played in all of this by Australian Margaret Court, who’d just pipped Billie Jean as top-seeded female player when Riggs issued his challenge. The straitlaced Court is a gift for the filmmakers as the baddie of the piece, with her gloating and her smugness in matters of sexual morality. She eventually joins the new women’s circuit (after initially denouncing it as an occasion for ‘sin and licentiousness’) and is the first to accept Riggs’ challenge, but he trounces her in the so-called Mother’s Day Massacre, another piece of history I’d forgotten about, if I ever registered it.
The filmmakers don’t make heavy weather of the sexual politics or indeed of the tennis itself, which is good because it frees us to enjoy some great storytelling and excellent characterisations. Emma Stone is very good as Billie Jean, and Steve Carrell looks uncannily like the real Bobby Riggs, seen in those actual photos that come on with the credits. Someone said it’s the best performance of his career, and I would agree except I haven’t seen enough of his work to make that judgment.
There are some other little nuggets of social history here too. Both Billie Jean King and Riggs wore their glasses throughout these furious games. (Billie Jean was never photographed without hers.) Can you imagine that nowadays? And they used to have tiny coin-operated TV sets in airport lounge armrests, something I never witnessed myself because I couldn’t afford to travel in those olden days because I spent all my money on Virginia Slims (as opposed to smashed avocadoes).
If the film has one failing it’s over-sentimentalising and possibly over-stating the relationship between King and her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett. It seems to have been her first gay relationship but it didn’t last; in fact it ended acrimoniously less than a decade later when Barnett’s ‘galimony’ suit against Billie Jean in 1981 outed her and cost her a fortune in endorsements.
The postscripts that come up just before the credits satisfy our curiosity as to what happened in the personal lives of the main players, but they also serve to remind us that the struggles and complexities of life can rarely be simplified to a battle between opposites of any kind, especially when it comes to human nature and sexuality. Read what they say about Billie Jean and Larry King and Bobby Riggs and their respective new and old spouses and you’ll see what I mean.
This review was first published in October 2017