In 1973 a tennis match was staged between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), in an attempt to prove a top woman tennis player could beat a previously top ranked male player.
Played in front of 30,000 fans at the Houston Astrodome with a worldwide TV audience of 90 Million, the largest audience in the US for a tennis match.
Arguably from a sporting perspective a pointless exercise, like trying to prove apples are better than pears, they are different, both with strengths and weaknesses.
However, the film is about more than a silly PR stunt/money grab by a faded male tennis star, paying off gambling debts. Riggs is an arrogant showman, male chauvinist but in that old fashioned, “didn’t know any better” way.
Meanwhile King is fighting tooth and nail with the USLTA now ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) to bring equal pay into the women’s game. Experiencing resistance from Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) the tour director, King sets up a tour dedicated to women initially sponsored by Virginia Slims Cigarettes, a precursor to the current WTA.
Viewing the trailer suggests this is a frivolous comedy, full of laughs and a buffoon type of performance from Carrell. This is unrepresentative, the film seeks to understand the importance of the match on women’s rights generally.
As importantly, the story sketches out King’s own very personal journey as she struggles with her own sexuality, at a time when “coming out” would have killed her career and any hopes of sponsorship for the fledgling tennis tour.
The film takes credit for treating the subjects seriously and Carrell and Stone both emerge with acting credits, in very different ways. Carrell essays the character as a superficial huckster, self knowing his prejudices are superficial, only to pay the bills.
Stone gets the heavy lifting, together with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) initially King’s hairdresser who becomes a central figure in King’s sexual awakening. Stone is impressive and the closing scenes before re-appearing to the crowd recognizing the reality of the time, is both touching and lacking in sugar coating.
Of note are the quieter but important roles of Larry King (Austin Stowell), husband of King. Also Elisabeth Shue as Priscilla Riggs, long suffering yet deep down loving wife of Bobby. Both roles could have been stereotypical but both actors find reality and humanity in the roles.
So a whole movie about tennis which really has nothing to do with tennis, using sport as a mirror to reflect the wider world. A story also enlivened by Alan Cumming as Cuthbert “Ted” Tinling, costumier to the ladies and in full on “darling” mode, Cummings clearly enjoying every minute.
More serious than you might expect but appropriately handled bearing in mind the themes explored.
Very much “on trend” in the #metoo era, a good story with an excellent ensemble cast together with a couple of easy villains to boo at.