In 1972 the reigning women’s tennis champion was twenty-nine-year-old Billie Jean King. With her signature round glasses and coiffured haircut, Billie Jean was at the top of her game but risked it all in the name of equal rights.
The film itself stars Emma Stone as the unbeatable athlete and Steve Carell as the retired former men's champion Bobby Riggs. Although centred around ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match in 1973, the film focuses more on King’s determination to change the industry and the personal struggles she faces during the process.
The story begins shortly after her win at the US Open, where upon hearing of the disparity between the men's and women's prize money, King begins a battle with the US Lawn Tennis Association to demand equal pay. She is met with laughs by the head of the association Jack Kramer, who explains it’s not women’s fault they aren’t as exciting to watch, “It’s just biology,” causing King to form her own women’s association as a protest against industry sexism.
With the help of fiery agent Gladys Heldman, played hilariously by Sarah Silverman, King rounds up fellow women’s pro players to embark on a countrywide tour, despite threats of being barred from future major competitions.
Upon hearing of Billie Jeans feminist battle against the system, former champion Bobby Riggs comes out of retirement to challenge her to a male versus female tennis match. Publicly branding himself as a ‘male chauvinist pig’ the 55-year-old starts a media frenzy around the idea of settling the score of who plays tennis best.
We see that Bobby’s life is stale, eating dinner around a table with his family, his eyes look sad as he complains about life in business. His only release is his secret gambling addiction, where he plays tennis against old friends in a host of ridiculous outfits to win money and cars that he has to hide from his wife. It is obvious that he longs for the glory days, itching to find anything comparable to the thrill of the game.
An excellent account of a defining moment in sports history
As a washed up retiree Riggs needs the spotlight to keep him going, like a drug, he craves the power and fame he once had, using faux sexism as a veil to garner the attention he desires.
King’s intentions are more transparent, focusing trying to establish women as valuable players in the industry rather than responding to Bobby’s insults. But after months of resisting his taunts, she decides to play against Riggs in the ultimate showdown, dubbed by TV stations the ‘Battle of the Sexes’.
Although the buildup to match is the film's focal feature, it’s most interesting parts are the secondary storylines, most notably both Billie Jeans and Bobby’s relationship struggles. For Billie Jean, this takes the form of a sexual awakening and for Bobby a relationship breakdown on account of his addictions.
These separate storylines are where Carell and Stone’s talents really shine through. Carell, in particular, bares an uncanny resemblance to Riggs with thick-framed glasses and mutton chops, but beyond this, he shows the man behind the misogynist and the fragile masculinity that caused him to pursue a match with a woman half his age.
This film provides an excellent account of a defining moment in sports history and educates audiences on the pioneering work that Billie Jean King did for women's professional tennis. Overall this film has serious themes but is still an entertaining watch with comic relief and enjoyable nods to the era.
Battle of the Sexes is showing at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 14th December.