Tennis is a sport dear to my heart. The thrill of winning a hard-fought point. The laugh-out-loud moments when the ball–despite a player’s miss-hit or pathetic return shot–somehow crosses the net to win the point. For me, however, the agony of defeat is reserved for my tennis heroes, the pros who are talented enough to make it into the four Grand Slam tournaments held in Australia, France, England and the United States. Forty-four years ago tennis wasn’t my sport and Billie Jean King wasn’t my hero, if only because I wasn’t watching the televised Exhibition match between Billie Jean and her would-be nemesis, Bobby Riggs. The two battled in front of 30,000+ spectators in a packed Houston Astrodome. Another 90 million people around the globe tuned in. The prize money was $100,000, winner-take-all. How in the world did I miss it? Last Saturday I finally got my chance to experience the unforgettable.
The film is funny, poignant, eye-roll inducing, exciting and triumphant, a great combo when dealing with two serious subjects played out against a big-but-silly publicity stunt. Except, that stunt turned out to be a game-changer–for women’s tennis, for other women athletes, and for women’s self-esteem in general. The serious subjects? Not that you don’t know already, but I’ll say them anyway: Equal Pay and a Secret/Taboo Lesbian Relationship.
Let’s look at the combatants:
Billie Jean King: In 1973, she’s 29 and 5’5″ tall, a California native raised in an athletic family. A softball wiz as a kid, she was encouraged by her folks to try a more “ladylike” sport. At age 11, she tried tennis. While attending Cal State University, she competed in tournaments but dropped out in 1964 to pursue her tennis career. Billie Jean won her first singles championship in 1966, at Wimbledon, and her first U.S. Open the following year. By 1968 she was ranked #1 and turned pro. (This was the beginning of the “Open Era” when pros were finally allowed to compete for prize money in tournaments previously open to only amateurs.) By the time she is carried–Cleopatra-like–into the Astrodome, college sweetheart Larry King has been her husband for eight years. But she has a big secret: she’s torn between an irresistible attraction to another woman and loyalty to the smart, supportive guy she married–although he’s caught on to the affair. That won’t be made public until 1981, in part because it might damage the fledgling women’s tour.
Bobby Riggs: In 1973, he’s 55 and 5’7″ tall, a California native who’s been married twice, most recently to a woman whose wealthy father funded their posh lifestyle. Once-upon-a-time Bobby was the #1 men’s player in the world, but we’re talking long ago–right before & after WWII. These days he plays some Senior tournaments, but his favorite sport in middle age is gambling–on just about anything. He’s a shameless self-promoter who discovers trash-talking about female players seems to draw a crowd. (Remember, this was the era of Archie Bunker and the hit sitcom All in the Family. Archie calls his wife Edith “dingbat.” He’s upset his daughter Gloria is a feminist, because he’s a bigot longing for the good old days–and yet, buried inside him is a heart.)
Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean and Bobby are equally fabulous. Wonder of wonders, they even look like the real people. Billie Jean said as much about Emma to Sports Illustrated. “It was amazing. Her mannerisms, her voice. If I close my eyes, I would have thought it was me.”
The film plays loose with a few facts, mainly the sequence of certain events leading up to the King-Riggs Battle. It doesn’t matter. The essence is there, a thought echoed by Billie Jean King after seeing the film.
If there’s a bad guy in the film it’s Jack Kramer, not so much Bobby Riggs. Kramer is a former #1 player who runs the pro-tour for both men and women, but he pays the guys a lot more. When Billie Jean finds out the purse is eight time more for the men ($12,000 vs. $1,500) at an upcoming tournament in L.A., she points out that the U.S. Open final, which she just won, sold as many tickets as the Men’s final. Jack Kramer doesn’t care. Most of the men have families to support, he says. Actually, I’m the main bread winner in my family, she says to deaf ears. He also tells her women are biologically inferior. It’s Kramer who comes across as the bigger male chauvinist. Bobby says plenty of offensive things about women, but he doesn’t come across as mean-spirited, just a man trying to drum up interest in his tennis match. (In any case, comments by both men made my eyes roll.) In response to Jack Kramer, Billie Jean and eight other top players quit to start their own tour, sponsored by–da da–a cigarette company. Some of the humor and funny one-liners result from that ‘unhealthy’ pairing. And from Gladys Heldman, a great character in her own right played by Sarah Silverman. She’s the founder of the World Tennis Magazine and one of the organizer’s of the new Virginia Slim Tour. She’s also a witty, tough-talking New Yorker with a passion for women’s tennis.
Billie Jean never wanted to play against Bobby. When she said no, he turned to Australian great Margaret Court, ranked #1 at the start of 1973. Margaret, a new mother, lost in two straight sets, and it was dubbed “The Mother’s Day Massacre.” The next time Bobby asked Billie Jean, she felt compelled to say yes, later explaining,” I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
The Virginia Slims Tour was a popular success. Within a few years it evolved into today’s Women’s Tennis Association, and the men took them back into the fold. In 1973, Billie Jean threatened to boycott the U.S. Open if they didn’t offer women equal prize money. They agreed. The other majors followed suit, eventually. Wimbledon was a hold out until 2007 and finally buckled after Serena Williams led the charge. Last month at the U.S. Open, held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in NY, American champion Sloane Stephens won $3.7 million, the same as Rafael Nadal. It sure looks like treating the women fairly and growing their half of the sport benefitted the men as well. Although, even today, not every tournament on the tour pays women equal prize money.
The film isn’t all tennis. There’s a “falling in love” story at its core. I found it believable and poignant. In the end, the relationship didn’t work out but the film ends long before that happens. Billie Jean later became the first prominent female athlete to announce she was gay. She and her husband divorced a few years later. He remarried and had kids; she found love with a new partner.
This is what Emma Stone said she learned from ‘becoming’ Billie Jean King:
“You can be doing things you shouldn’t be doing, being so worried, losing when you think you should be winning, all these different things. You can still effect change in the world. You don’t have to be perfect to be great.” Emma Stone in a sit-down interview with Billie Jean King and Sports Illustrated, September 2017.