I used to be a sports fan before I was a sports writer. After mingling with other sports writers, I lost all interest in reading about sports in the mainstream news. Sexism was served without love for women. “The Battle of the Sexes” is about a time that predates my sports writing foray by a couple of decades and leaving the theater after seeing the movie, I had a better appreciation for Riggs and mixed feeling about the tobacco industry. Riggs and King are two Southern Californians who met and made their mark on tennis.
“The Battle of the Sexes” conflicts with my image of a tough Billie Jean and smarmy, loud-mouthed Bobby. Billie Jean King seemed like a tough competitor. Sports was different during the 1970s, a time when sports commentary was then dominated by people like Howard Cosell.
Riggs came of age during a time when tennis players didn’t make big money and if you didn’t work a regular 9-to-5, the best you could do was the hustle to teach lessons. Riggs hustled more and better and more flamboyantly. But he was also a gambler and he liked to win.
“If I can’t play for little money, I stay in bed,” Riggs says in the “60 Minutes” segment.
Billie Jean King was born ( November 22, 1943) and raised in Long Beach. Riggs (February 25, 1918 – October 25, 1995) was born in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles and died in Leucadia, Encinitas, California. He was ranked no. 1 in 1939, the year he won Wimbledon and the US Open. He turned pro in 1941. The war interrupted his tennis career. He retired in 1959.
If you’ve ever played tennis, you’ll know that it requires both power, strategy and stamina. When you’re a lone person on one side of the net, there’s also a lot of psychology involved in beating your opponent.
In the movie, “The Battle of the Sexes,” we begin with the birth of what would become the Women’s Tennis Association. Outraged that the Pacific Southwest Championships directed by Jack Kramer is providing a men’s purse of $12,000 while the women get $1,500. Billie Jean (Emma Stone) goes to complain directly to Kramer (Bill Pullman) with Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) although they aren’t allow in the clubhouse (Heldman asks if they are allowed there “Because I’m a woman or because I’m a Jews?”).
Heldman and King along with eight other female players separated from the United States Lawn Tennis Association to form and eight player women’s tour that was sponsored by Joseph Cullman of Philip Morris, the Virginia Slims.
During this time, Bobby Riggs is being supported by a wealthy second wife with whom he has a young son. For her sake, he’s supposed to give up gambling and attends Gambling Anonymous and is in therapy. But the convinces his therapist to gamble and charges that the members of GA “are here because you are terrible gamblers” and concludes they “just need to get better at it.
Bobby conceives of the ultimate hustle: The Battle of the Sexes. He challenges Billie Jean, but she turns him down. She’s distracted by a hairdresser who she become romantically attracted to despite being married to a handsome and supportive Larry King. Portrayed as shy by Emma Stone, this Billie Jean doesn’t relish being part of a circus act. Instead, Bobby gets Margaret Court to engage in what will be called the Mother’s Day Massacre in the small town of Ramona, CA after Billie Jean’s slump allows Margaret to become number one.
Billie Jean accepts the challenge for women’s rights and to improve attitudes toward women’s tennis. She disappears from public view while Bobby makes progressively ridiculous antics for camera crews and depends more upon pills to keep him healthy rather than actual practice. Bobby is getting more attention than he did during his winning year of 1939. In the end, Billie Jean will beat Bobby, and Bobby will not totally disappear, but he’ll be depressed.
While we already know the outcome, the movie keeps our interest by contrasting the privates lives of Bobby and Billie Jean. Neither is totally happy and Billie Jean is discovering that while she loves Larry, her sexual interests lay elsewhere.
Eventually, Billie Jean and Larry will divorce and she will find a woman to love, but that’s not what is important here. What the movie doesn’t suggest or reveal in its ending is that Bobby and Billie Jean became friends, so I doubt that Bobby was as obnoxiously male chauvinistic as he portrayed himself, a Clown Prince of Chauvinists Piggies. Stone and Carrell both give sympathetic portrayals, ones that let you imagine they will some day be friends. We can also see how both could end up being portrayed by the media as abrasive and one has to remember that we see sports figures through the lens of the time and too often that lens was fogged by sexism.
There was another match-up that ended up differently: Jimmy Connors against Martina Navratilova in 1992. Navratilova was 35; Connors was 40. Navratilova has turned down challenges against the bad boys of tennis: John McEnroe and Ilie Năstase. She chose the more dignified Connors. Each was guaranteed $650,000 with the winner receiving an additional $500,000. At the time, the top women’s tennis player was Monica Seles.
“The Battle of the Sexes” is a good reminder that what we see in public isn’t always the truth and women have, like the Virginia Slims’ old slogan says, “come a long way, baby.”