Almost forty-five years have passed since the 1973 clash between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs. I can still recall the excitement and anticipation around the televised match. Along with millions of viewers worldwide, I watched as both players competed for the winner’s trophy, a cash prize of $100,000, and lifelong acclaim. As for the backstory, I knew very little about their personal struggles and the level of misogyny that existed within the tennis establishment.
Directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Ferris have created an entertaining and multi-layered film that explores and exposes those issues while demonstrating equal sympathy for Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). Both actors deliver stellar performances, worthy of their Golden Globe nominations. Hopefully, Oscar nominations will follow.
A feminist symbol, King didn’t hesitate to point out the disparity that existed within the sport: male winners received eight times as much as their female counterparts. But her complaints fell on deaf ears. In a patronizing tone, retired pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) justifies the discrepancy: “Men are more of a draw; the men are more exciting to watch…It’s not your fault. It’s just biology.”
Frustrated, King creates a woman’s pro circuit, sponsored by Virginia Slims Cigarettes. In a later confrontation, King faces down Kramer: “It’s when we want a little of what you’ve got, that’s what you can’t stand.” Off the court, King struggles with her sexuality as she vacillates between her marriage and a blossoming relationship with her hairdresser.
A chronic gambler, Riggs embraces his chauvinistic side, participating in a series of outlandish publicity stunts. Much of the humor in the film comes from Steve Carrell’s excellent portrayal of the over-the-hill hustler who likes to gamble big; Riggs actually wins a Rolls-Royce in one bet. On an ironic note…the chauvinist appears to be living off his wealthy wife.
The face-off in the Houston Astrodome is staged by stunt doubles shot from a distance with occasional glances at the stars. I enjoyed watching the audience reaction and was especially moved by one of the large signs: “Billy Jean for President.”
A well-crafted film that has relevance in our contemporary world.