Frances Winston really enjoyed this ‘based on a true story’ film about the famous match between tennis players, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which highlighted a disparity in pay between male and female tennis players
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris – Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen
Tennis legend, Billie Jean King, is applauded for her work in the battle for equality for women and the LGBTQ community these days. However, her activism was not always so feted. Back in the 70s, when she complained about the disparity in pay for female tennis players as opposed to male players, she was lambasted, and after helping form an all-female tennis tour, she found herself unceremoniously thrown out of the American Lawn Tennis Association.
The match featured in this movie did a huge amount to highlight the issue of equality for the sexes.
In 1973, Billie Jean (played here by Stone) accepted a challenge from Bobby Riggs (Carell), the 55-year-old former world number one men’s player (who is not remembered as vividly or fondly as Billie Jean these days). He claimed that no woman could beat him, and was a self-styled male chauvinist pig.
The match took place at the Houston Astrodome in Texas on September 20, 1973, and garnered huge publicity. There were 30,492 spectators at the venue, and a television audience estimated at 50 million people in the U.S., and 90 million in 37 other countries.
It is a matter of record that King won that match, so this isn’t a spoiler. However, this film is about more than that match and her significant victory. In fact, this only constitutes a tiny part of the proceedings. Much of the focus is on Billie Jean coming to terms with her sexuality.
At the time of the match, she was married, but found herself attracted to women. This is explored here through a fledgling romance with her hairdresser, played by Riseborough. While Riggs himself had his own struggles at the time, including a gambling addiction, this isn’t examined in nearly as much detail. However, Billie Jean’s story never feels like it is being treated gratuitously. This could be something to do with the fact that the film has both a male and female director on board.
Stone is great as King, and has clearly scrutinised her mannerisms on and off court. Carell is suitably sleazy as Riggs, but if you didn’t know he was playing a real life character, you might think he was OTT, so outrageous was some of his behaviour.
There is a great supporting cast. In particular, the usually affable Bill Pullman, who gets to display his dark side as Jack Kramer, the head of the Lawn Tennis Association.
The look and feel of the era are perfectly captured, helped in no small part by a fantastic soundtrack. Although the focus here is on the politics of sport, the sense of oppression felt by the women of that era is conveyed through the throwaway remarks by men, and the attitudes of the women featured.
Also dealt with sensitively is the attitude to same-sex relationships at the time. Billie Jean has no shortage of people who would delight in dragging her down because of the ‘scandal’, but also several who are happy for her to be who she wants to be. Indeed, it would be 1981 before King’s real-life relationship with her secretary would become public knowledge, and even then, almost a decade after the events depicted here, it cost her a lot of money in endorsements.
There are some liberties taken with the facts, as is always the case in these ‘based on a true story’ movies, but much like the tennis match that inspired this tale, it is a crowd-pleaser. In light of some recent events, many of the topics depicted take on a whole new resonance, making this historical dramedy surprisingly relevant.
Even if you are not a tennis fan, you will find this entertaining. The fact that we know the outcome is irrelevant. It’s not quite game, set, and match to this movie, but I’ve a feeling it could be a surprise contender come awards season.
IMC until Thursday 21st December, VUE Liffey Valley today 19th December, and CINEWORLD until Thursday 21st December