Tennis comes a long way in new film “Battle of the Sexes”
Emma Stone and Steve Carell / Melinda Sue Gordon

Picture the year 1973: The sexual revolution was in full swing thanks to pioneering women such as the late Kate Millett, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, consciousness-raising groups, and the rise of the women’s movement. The Stonewall Rebellion four years earlier focused on LGBTQ liberation. The Equal Rights Amendment was being hotly debated. Those were heady days, when historic cultural norms for the behavior and position of men and women in society came under intense questioning. Virtually every family and social institution in the country underwent some re-evaluation as to the expectations assumed for girls and boys, women and men.

The 1973 tennis match between women’s champion Billie Jean King and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” among the most watched televised sports events of all time, with some 90 million viewers worldwide.

The new feature film Battle of the Sexes, co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, recounts the great match in almost documentary form. As a standard Hollywood movie, it does not set out to make filmmaking history, but it tells an important story in a most engaging way. It was written by Simon Beaufoy, the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire, similarly a suspenseful “contest” film. Starring some of the best talent in the business, this is one not to miss.

The competition didn’t start out as “Libbers vs. Lobbers,” but only evolved into that. It began when Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) start chafing at the much smaller prize purse for women than for men—about one-eighth the size for men—even though the tournaments were held at the same venues with the same ticket prices and with equally sold-out crowds. King did not set out to prove women’s superiority, but principally to establish equity of treatment between men and women. It was still a male chauvinist world in those days long ago (thankfully we’re way past that now, right?), where CEO Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) felt he could acceptably say things about the sport like, “Women are not in the same league,” and “It’s a man’s game.”

It’s almost a textbook definition of the theory of super-exploitation: Yes, all workers are exploited, but if you can pit white against black, native-born against immigrant, men against women, etc., hey, you can pick up that extra percentage of profit owing to racism, low consciousness, and lack of solidarity.

In refusing to negotiate a better deal with women players, Kramer virtually forced King and other players out of the USLTA. They formed the Women’s Tennis Association and pretty soon garnered backing from Virginia Slims cigarettes. The Slims championship included twelve months of funding, with a winner’s prize of $7000. Catch being, of course, that the players were expected to pose for photos with “Slims” in hand. The tobacco line’s motto became a well-known gloss on the “women’s lib” movement, though it was often heard ironically: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The slogan is, of course, chock full of conflicting meanings and subtexts: How far have you come? How much farther is there to go? In coming this far, whom have you left behind? And you are “baby” to whom exactly? Are cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and addiction the inevitable cost of progress for women?

Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is more or less kept on as a retainer in the USLTA, thanks to his marriage to Jack Kramer’s daughter Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). He’s portrayed as a kind of pathetic clown and addictive gambler living off his earned reputation as a master tennis player, but a profound embarrassment to family members who know him all too intimately.

Behind the scenes, in the lead-up to the big match, we see that both King and Riggs had other battles to fight. King is portrayed as married to her husband Larry (Austin Stowell)—not the TV host Larry King—but clearly the fizzle had long dissipated. Early on in the film, the women’s team hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) shares a sexual frisson with King, which not too many minutes later is delicately captured by the bedside camera. Riggs had marital problems as well, Priscilla finally coming to terms with her husband’s buffoonery and betting problem.

Before the King-Riggs matchup, Riggs challenged the then top women’s player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to a game. Court, married with an infant child, conservative, religious, is a stand-in for those women who lacked the courage to embrace the egalitarian movement. The film almost makes it appear as though it was her failure of will to combat male chauvinism that flubbed her game against Bobby Riggs.

To its great credit, the film does not shy away from King’s lesbianism, which only emerged at this time in her career. Imagine the howls of protest if that had been glossed over or left out! Over time, Billie Jean King became one of the world’s most recognized public lesbian figures, much admired as a role model for all women.

At the time, however, gay and lesbian liberation had hardly seeped into the fabric of American culture; indeed, despite all the advances it is still and again contested turf. It was risky in many professions then, and in families and social groups, to be “out.” As her dresser/coach/consigliere Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming, himself a very out actor) warns her, “Best be careful. The world is not always a forgiving place.” But King quickly used her fame to make a difference for everyone. Credit Tinling with designing fresh-looking outfits for the players: Color on tennis togs!

In the film’s “third act,” the big game is on. Emboldened by his win over Margaret Court, Riggs publicly challenges any woman to play him. “I’m going to put the show back in chauvinism,” he boasts, making the contest more than one between two players of equally matched skills, but an openly male versus female battle of the sexes. While dismissing the possibility of a loss to a woman, he seemed to ignore the fact that in 1973 he was 55 years old, and Billie Jean King 29.

In the cordial, taunting exchange of gifts between King and Riggs for the benefit of the rolling cameras before the game starts, a certain pig makes his cameo appearance.

The game itself is of course what the whole film points toward, and though we know in advance what the result will be, it is nevertheless a thrill to watch, interspersed with reaction shots from other leading characters. (In those scenes, tennis players Kaitlyn Christian and Vince Spadea play the body doubles of Stone and Carell.)

Friend Tinling sums up the film, telling King, “The world is changing. You just changed it,” predicting that one day we’ll be freer to love whom we want—perhaps a bit treacly, but, yes, true. It did get better.

Battle of the Sexes is 121 minutes long. The trailer can be viewed here.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.