Forty-four years ago, history was made on a tennis court inside a sweltering Houston Astrodome. That evening, on Sept. 20, 1973, tennis champion Billie Jean King thrashed a gasping, middle-aged Bobby Riggs in the notorious “Battle of the Sexes.”
One of the iconic television events of its era, the match falls somewhere between “Who shot J.R.?” and the O.J. Simpson chase. Nevertheless, it still stands as the most watched tennis match in history, with more than 30,000 at the Houston Astrodome and more than 90 million watching on television around the world, and came to be seen as a seminal event in the fight for women’s rights.
The newly released film “Battle of the Sexes” brings to life the spectacle and frenzied hype surrounding Riggs-King. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ film offers a mostly faithful depiction of the event. It’s about time. Having written a biography of Bobby Riggs (“The Last Sure Thing: The Life & Times of Bobby Riggs”), I’ve long thought the story of how a gimmicky tennis exhibition transformed into a cultural and sociological phenomenon is a cinematic natural.
The movie — as was the match itself — is not about sports. Who really cared whether an aging former men’s tennis champion could beat a top female pro? Besides, 55-year-old Bobby Riggs had, a few months prior, already defeated the world’s best female player, Margaret Court, in the nearly forgotten “Mother’s Day Massacre” — a 6-2, 6-1 shellacking that took less than an hour. In fact, when he first came up with the idea, the real-life Riggs thought it would simply be fun exhibition to play before a couple hundred people with a $5,000 winner-take-all purse.
What made the match transcend the realm of sports oddity to capture the imagination of the nation was its unique combination of personalities and circumstances. There was Riggs, the irrepressible showman, hustler, huckster and a compulsive gambler — an almost vaudevillian character whose breathless sexist rants and goofy tennis challenges amused some, irritated many, but nevertheless had everyone paying attention. Then there was King, the forthright, fearless competitor and outspoken advocate for women’s rights — the perfect foil for Riggs’ sexist taunts. Add a nation weary of the Vietnam War, burned out by the trauma of Watergate and desperate for a little comic relief. Throw in the power of prime-time television, and you have an event that — long before the age of the internet — went “viral.”
Suddenly, people who had never held a racket were interested in tennis. The match pitted men versus women, young versus old, fathers versus daughters, bosses versus secretaries, the old guard versus the new order. Everybody knew about Riggs-King and nearly everybody had an opinion about who would (or at least should) win. The match became an all-purpose forum to play out the real-life conflicts that had been tearing at the country.
The film spends much time — too much, I would argue — exploring the personal motivations and backstories of the two protagonists, and in particular King’s lesbian affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, which wouldn’t be known until years after the match. Emma Stone plays King with a kind of grim determination and seriousness, leaving the most entertaining sequences to the ebullient Riggs, played by Steve Carell, who conveys Riggs’ puckish bravado and hyperventilated banter perfectly. The role of heavy is left to Bill Pullman’s oily portrayal of tennis promoter Jack Kramer, whose refusal to offer fair compensation to women players at his Pacific Southwest Championships spurred a boycott by King and other top players and the establishment of an independent women’s tour, the Virginia Slims.
The film doesn’t really explore the impact of the match, leaving it to a couple of endnotes before the credit sequence. Whether it changed the course of the women’s movement is arguable. After all, it was well underway by the time Riggs started mouthing off. But by sheer visibility, it did much to affirm it and it gave feminists a tremendously likable heroine in King.
King recalled in her 1974 autobiography visiting a Philadelphia newspaper about two weeks after the match: “I must have met everybody in the [newspaper] building, and I talked to most of them — just small talk, nothing serious. I found out later, though, that the morning after the match with Bobby, several of the women there had stormed into their bosses’ offices and demanded raises on the spot. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Battle of the Sexes” lets us see how far we’ve come since 1973, and prompts us to realize how far we still have to go.