A back-and-forth rally on substance and style in 'Battle of the Sexes'

by: Steve Tignor | September 26, 2017

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This week tennis takes a rare turn on the big screen, in a big Hollywood production: Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, will debut across the country on Friday.

Joel Drucker, author of Don’t Bet on It and Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, and I give our sneak previews here.

*****

Joel,

I'll start by saying that I liked Battle of the Sexes, and liked it much more than I thought I would when the project was announced. I had half-expected it to be another campy, colorful, over-the-top '70s nostalgia trip, but I was pleased to discover that, like the King-Riggs match itself, there was substance—even melancholy—beneath the style. 

The first question with any tennis movie is whether the sport can be conveyed convincingly. That's not easy, but BOTS passes the test. In part, this is because it's not all that hard to mimic Riggs' short and simple pre-war strokes. Carell pulls it off, with some help from body double Vince Spadea. The same goes for Stone and her double, Kaitlyn Christian. There's no need for anyone to learn a Western forehand or a jumping backhand here. The important thing is that the match in the Astrodome successfully recreates the tension of that evening.

Of course, there's a lot more to the story of the Battle of the Sexes than tennis. There's the advent of the women's tour, the then-radical idea of equal pay, the thorny issue of tobacco sponsorship, the beginning of BJK's relationship with Marilyn Barnett and the perils of gambling, to name a few. They're all shoehorned into this movie pretty deftly.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the narrative is how it has been updated for 2017. Instead of gender equality, the focus here is largely on King's sexuality, and her conflicted feelings about her budding relationship with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett.

What did you think of the movie, Joel, and what did you find interesting about how the story was told?


Tennis Channel spoke with Emma Stone, who plays Billie Jean King, at the Battle of the Sexes premiere in Los Angeles:


Steve,

I liked Battle of the Sexes very much. I too shared your concerns that the nostalgia-culture aspects would overwhelm the tale, but that wasn’t the case at all.   

To me, the movie was very much a story about identity—about both Billie Jean and Bobby trying to understand who they were at that time, and who they were on the way to becoming.  

Tennis had shaped each of them so much as individuals. Though the movie doesn’t touch on this, their backgrounds were very similar: two working-class strivers from tennis-rich Southern California, each underestimated by that region’s tennis majordomo, Perry T. Jones. Tennis was the democratic vehicle for becoming a big deal, and each spoke quite loudly with their racquet.

But as the movie shows vividly, the price tag of that democratic success is a certain kind of isolation.  One of my favorite quotes regarding tennis comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a book written more than 30 years before the sport was even invented: “Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

Bobby and Billie Jean were each seeking greater forms of meaning and connection. For Bobby, at least as shown in this film, that meant finding a way to get in on the action of what tennis was becoming in the early ‘70s: a rising sport with drastically increased visibility and money. From all I’ve read and learned from talks with many, it’s doubtful that Riggs was any kind of chauvinist ideologue. He just wanted his piece of the growing tennis pie.

But Riggs is very much the secondary character. Billie Jean is the one at the epicenter, taking a stand with her racquet, her leadership, her persistent willingness to tilt at windmills. The movie depicts all of this wonderfully, a smooth and powerful evocation of those times and conflicts. I’ll be curious to hear what people less familiar with the tale make of all of the tennis politics of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

Even more, though, the politics mattered much less than Billie Jean’s search to understand herself—played out through her relationships with such people as her husband Larry, fashion designer Ted Tinling and, most of all, hairdresser-confidante-lover Marilyn Barnett. For all Billie Jean’s desire to make tennis a big deal, the movie best shows her humanity—the passion of the competitor, the vulnerability of the human.  Tennis gives, and tennis takes.

What surprised you about the movie, Steve?


Tennis Channel spoke with Elisabeth Shue, who plays Priscilla Riggs, at the Battle of the Sexes premiere in Los Angeles:


Joel,

You’re right that the core, or cores, of Battle of the Sexes are the personal crossroads—every screenplay must begin at a crossroads, right?—that King and Riggs found themselves in during the early '70s. And I think those situations, and how they’re handled, are what (pleasantly) surprised me most about the movie.

I knew, from reading BJK’s autobragraphy with Frank Deford, and Grace Lichtenstein’s A Long Way, Baby, about the women’s tour in 1973 (both essential books for WTA fans), that she had met Marilyn Barnett by the time of her match with Riggs, and that Marilyn had sat on the court with her at the Astrodome. But I still knew Marilyn primarily from the unfortunate, highly sensationalized end of their relationship, in the early ’80s, when she sued BJK for the equivalent of alimony. I hadn’t connected that relationship with the Battle of the Sexes. The movie’s conceit, essentially, is that BJK needed Marilyn, and needed to find her true self with her, to play and beat Riggs. Whether that’s actually how it happened or not, it’s a smart way to update the tale of the Battle of the Sexes for the era of gay rights.

The same goes for Riggs' side of the story. At first I thought Carell was underplaying Riggs, and not doing justice to the boisterous side of his personality. In the early going, he’s a sad sack has-been heading straight for divorce and Gamblers Anonymous. But I ended up thinking this was an effective way to portray an ex-athlete—Bobby only comes to life when he’s back in the game, either playing it or betting on it. He’s given surprising depth, and isn’t portrayed as a villain, which I liked; but I do think the immediate stakes of the King/Riggs are pushed to the side in the movie. Riggs’ specific point was to show that the senior men’s tour deserved sponsor money more than the women’s tour—a loss by King might have been devastating in terms of how much money the WTA could command.

The villain, according to Battle of the Sexes, was Jack Kramer, who refused to pay the women at his tournaments anything close to what he paid the men. What did you think of his portrayal, by Bill Pullman, Joel, and that of Gladys Heldman? Sarah Silverman is funny as Heldman, and she definitely looks and sounds the part. But I think Heldman was a more substantial character in real life, no?

And finally, what do you think non-tennis fans will take from this movie?


Tennis Channel spoke with Austin Stowell, who plays Larry King, at the Battle of the Sexes premiere in Los Angeles:


Steve,

I watched Battle of the Sexes again, this time at an advance screening in San Francisco. There’s a major local angle to this that’s not overtly present in the movie, but unquestionably significant. The San Francisco Bay Area is important to Billie Jean’s story not just as a locale, but as a place and time that greatly propelled the plot.

Billie Jean and her husband, Larry, moved to Berkeley in the 1965-’66 period so that he could attend law school at Cal. They would live in that area for nearly a decade, including the period covered by the movie. And while Billie Jean’s social consciousness was already high, certainly her sensibilities were shaped by Berkeley and San Francisco’s lively political-cultural spirit—protests, speeches, experimentation, music, innovation.

As for the movie itself, this second viewing helped me see even more deeply the humanity of its protagonists, Billie Jean most of all. There are repeated signs of her vulnerability, of King’s awareness that she is lonely, flawed, uncertain of who she is and who she is becoming; all of this amid the tumult of competition and the quest to make women’s tennis popular and credible.

And while King is the one tilting at windmills, the movie also show—though barely—Riggs’ view: Life itself is a gamble, so why not grab it and compete on your terms? Somewhere, somehow, there’s a serious story about Riggs to be told, about the emotional needs of this champion who wanted his own piece of tennis’ growing pie as the game took off in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But alas, in this telling, Riggs comes off mostly as a silly opportunist. 

Finally, a second viewing of a movie reveals its craftsmanship, especially in the area of pacing. Battle of the Sexes is superb in that department.

As for the portrayals of Kramer and Heldman, I thought they were very much what they needed to be for the movie—distillations of the essence of each and their respective roles in this story. A parallel tale would detail the titanic importance of Kramer and Heldman in the growth of tennis, and how the two of them connected and conflicted. 

At times, Gladys and Jack were in harmony; prior to 1968, each advocated for Open tennis. But then, as the movie shows, there came the big flashpoint: in September 1970, Jack, head of the Pacific Southwest Open, announced that the women’s winner would earn 12 times less than the men’s champion, and that there would be no money for women who failed to reach the quarters. This was when Billie Jean and Gladys took action. 

And then came an amazing but largely forgotten event that might have been the most important catalyst in the growth of women’s tennis, and even women’s sports: starting on January 1, 1971, cigarette advertising was banned from television. How was Virginia Slims to reach its target audience? 

As the movie shows, Heldman got Virginia Slims to sponsor a single women's tournament that September. With money previously allocated for TV ads now available, why settle for one?  Thus was born the Virginia Slims Circuit, Gladys front and center with the players in making the tour happen. I like the way the movie shows how engaged the “Original Nine” were in bringing women’s pro tennis to life, not just with their racquets, but by pounding the pavement to get the media to cover events and fans to attend.

To answer your final question, Steve: What will the non-tennis fan make of this movie? First, I’m curious what even tennis fans will think of it. While geeks like you and I constantly hold the game’s history in our heads, most who watch the game occupy the present, scarcely thinking about Pete Sampras’ tennis, much less Billie Jean King’s. One thing I hope they’ll see is what made Billie Jean not just an icon, but a great player.

And those who don’t know tennis at all?  Perhaps they might see its allegoric connection to events such as the 2016 presidential election. Or they might merely enjoy it as a time capsule glimpse into a certain time and place, a period when tennis had grown significant enough to serve as some sort of operative metaphor to play out a social issue.

Finally, one thing I really savor about this movie is the way everyone in it thoroughly loves tennis. Such appeared to be the case for players of that era—and golly, they were even happier once money and exposure started to come in. (I’m convinced that’s really what Riggs wanted; he had no social agenda about women’s rights—he just wanted in on the action.)

But Steve, do you think tennis movies set in other eras—from the ‘90s on—are more likely to show the game differently? And for that reason, do you think there will even ever be movies made about the more world-weary aspects of the game, as revealed through the likes of Andre Agassi?   


Tennis Channel spoke with Jessica McNamee, who plays Margaret Court, at the Battle of the Sexes premiere in Los Angeles:


Joel,

As you say, the flashpoint between the men and women at the start of the Open era was money. BJK has talked about how much fun she had with the male players on the early, experimental, '60s-era dual-gender barnstorming pro tours, but once real money began to flow into the game, and she started demanding a share of it, all of that changed. As Battle of the Sexes shows, the fact that a woman could make $100,000 a year playing tennis is what originally brought King to Riggs’ attention. Even the much more mild-mannered Rod Laver admitted that he never could have imagined a woman making anything close to what he made playing tennis. BOTS, in which we hear the real Howard Cosell say to a national TV audience that BJK could have been movie star if only she lost the glasses and did something with her hair, reminds us that this seemingly-Neanderthal mindset was the common one not so long ago.

It should be interesting for today’s tennis fans to see how that flashpoint remains with us today, 45 years after the King/Riggs match. Much has changed for the better in tennis; equal pay is the rule at the majors, and dual-gender events have proliferated. But much hasn’t changed. Among the men, the protests against equal pay, and equality between the tours, has never disappeared. Chauvinism simmers just below the surface.

Thinking about the Kramer vs. King duel in BOTS, and how that set the tone for the pro era, makes me think that the fundamental problem is that the sport is split not just between two tours or two genders, but between two companies, the ATP and the WTA. The men’s financial success has never depended on how popular the women’s game is, which means the ATP has never had to care about the health of the WTA. When the women have tried to join financial forces with the man—Kings tried it in the early 70s; WTA chief Larry Scott tried again a decade ago—the ATP has rejected the idea.

This dynamic can be frustrating, but it also makes tennis socially relevant and interesting in a way that other single-gender sports (i.e., virtually all of them) aren’t. The male-female politics of tennis, whether they’re progressive or regressive at any given moment, add a deeper layer of significance to the sport and our involvement in it as fans. And they make Battle of the Sexes a must-see in a way that so many other sports movies aren’t.

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