The year is 1973 and second-wave feminism is at its peak. While most people familiar with the history of feminism will know the basics of this story, this film broadens the focus, fleshing out the players’ backstories and the degree of gender inequity in both the tennis world and society at large at the time of the epic match.
The film opens with Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) discovering that the cash prizes offered to male players in an upcoming tournament will be eight times that offered to the women.
Outraged, King and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) burst into an exclusive all-male club and confront the tournament organiser, Lawn Tennis Association president and committed chauvinist Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). Kramer refuses to offer equal prize money, claiming women’s tennis to be less interesting than men’s, despite the evidence of equal ticket sales.
King is infuriated. In response she forms a rival league (what would go on to become the Women’s Tennis Association) and sets about recruiting the best female tennis players to join her on her new women’s circuit.
Meanwhile, former tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is trapped in a boring office job and while he’s retired from the professional circuit, he misses the competitive rush, to the extent that he’s in therapy for a serious gambling addiction that is threatening to ruin his marriage to his exceptionally wealthy and beautiful wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue).
Hearing of King’s demands for equal respect and pay for female players, Riggs sees a way to resurrect his celebrity by challenging King to an exhibition match.
Taking advantage of the publicity generated by King’s demands for equality, Riggs takes to the airwaves spouting sexist drivel about women belonging in the kitchen or the bedroom and insisting that he can beat any female player on the court. Eventually, King realises she must take him on and beat him, not only for her own pride but for the right of all women to be respected and treated equally.
There’s a great deal going on in this film so it’s fortunate that there’s not as much tennis being played as you’d think in a movie about a tennis match. There’s no time.
In addition to fighting on behalf of her gender, King was also discovering her sexual orientation, starting an extra-marital affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
Her coming out is beautifully portrayed by Stone and deservedly occupies a significant portion of the film. Her need to hide her sexual orientation is critical to the story, as it serves to illuminate the conservatism of the era as well as the social and financial backlash faced by openly gay athletes.
Directing team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, do amazing work packing the many facets of this story into a mere two hours. They capture the retro energy of the time by shooting on 35mm film, using saturated colour and an excellent early ’70s soundtrack.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) has a great deal of fun with Carell’s dialogue, the misogynistic antics thankfully toned down from that of the real-life Riggs, whose sound-bites from 1973 sound uncomfortably like Austin Powers.
In fact, Beaufoy and Carell manage to make Riggs almost too charming, which could’ve undermined the whole point of the film. Fortunately, Bill Pullman’s portrayal of the sinister, casual misogyny of Jack Kramer pulls our focus back to the main theme, perfectly illustrating the enormous cultural significance of this tennis match at a time when gender inequality was the status quo.
The question we are left with is: How much has really changed since 1973?
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