Fox Searchlight 121 Minutes PG-13
“I’m going to put the show back in Chauvinism.” Bobby Riggs
“I’m going to be the best, that way I can really change things.” Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean King went to court to defend herself against male chauvinism and inequality which is still an issue today. Only she won in1973 and on a tennis court. This film shows how that match played out becoming one of the most watched televised sports events and a worldwide phenomenon. It is an entertaining and illuminating film that shines a light on the emergence of the feminist movement and changes in attitude towards sexuality.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) deftly direct Emma Stone and Steven Carell as they serve up the details, on and off the court. And Oscar winning writer Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) recreates the era with believable dialogue. The film juxtaposes and exposes Billie Jean King’s and Bobby Riggs’ hidden demons. She was struggling with her sexuality and he with excessive gambling.
Stone is Billie Jean King, the world’s top ranked women’s player at one point winning a $100,000 payday which was huge at that time, but still much less than the men regularly took home. She broke from the tennis establishment to fight for equal pay, setting up a league of their own, The Women’s Tennis Association.
Sarah Silverman plays King’s snappy manager, Gladys Heldman, who is totally against the idea at first. Silverman adds her own brand of rye humor in her role handling the women as they band together to fight the misogyny of the men’s association.
Emma Stone is quiet, reserved and in control as Billie Jean, but she does allow her inner rage to come through in short bursts. Stone studied tons of archival footage of the tennis great’s playing and interviews to get her characterization for the film including the details of not only the ramp up to the match but her personal relationships. This is the first time she's playing a real person. Stone didn’t get to meet Billie Jean until the publicity tour for the movie.
Billie Jean’s personal demon is confusion about her sexuality. Even though married to her supportive hunk Larry King, played by Austin Stowell, (Bridge of Spies), she succumbs to the flirty come-on from hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, they worked together in Birdman). Stone shows Billie as tentative in the relationship, even shy, until she comes to grips with her desires. This is a first for Stone. It’s her first sex scene in a movie. It is well acted and well shot and more tender and sensual than prurient. Billie Jean was petrified to keep this secret at a time when homosexuality was even more hated than sexual equality.
Carell, as Bobbie Riggs, is the 55-year-old, past his prime, former top tennis player and hustler looking for a big pay day and a chance to not only express his male chauvinism, but get back in the limelight. Riggs wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself to get attention dressing up in a candy bar costume, or as a clown, as a centerfold, or as Little Bo Peep with sheep on the court to get attention.
The directors capture all those moments. It became a circus of publicity stunts which get laughs and show the real Riggs. He became one of the first self-made media-age celebrities. But he also wrestled with his own gambling addiction, at the expense of his marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and two grown sons who couldn’t abide his lies either. He nearly lost his family. The script brings out his sad side as well as his boundlessly hyper side. Carell more than adequately depicts Riggs as a man who just can’t help who he is. You almost feel sorry for him.
Carell worked with Directors Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine. He continues his chameleon acting journey in this film. Following his weird transformation as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, Carell once again puts on prosthetics to inhabit Bobby Riggs’ look. He even studied how Riggs carried himself with the unique way he swung his arms as he walked. Even though Riggs is ostensibly the villain of this tale, Carell makes him not totally unlikable. He’s made to appear even more pathetic, even to his wife.
Stone and Carell had their work cut out for them learning how to play the game. Stone is not big into sports, or wasn’t, but learned to play by working with coaches. She gained 15 pound of muscle. Her training regimen resulted in her being able to dead lift up to 185 pounds.
Stone and Carell had doubles and the directors archive footage from the 1973 was edited into the scenes of the big match. Carell met and played tennis with Riggs’ coach, Lornie Kuhle on several occasions, learning more about his style for the characterization. But, in a quip, Carrell sayshis biggest challenge was wearing the double polyester short shorts. Side note, it may look like he wore a wig to get Riggs’ unkempt look, but the hair was his own.
Carell remembers seeing the hoopla as an 11-year-old kid, and knew, even then, it was a put on. Riggs was a showman. But the movie shows that for Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) as the Executive Director of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and other male chauvinists in the movie, the outcome of the Battle of the Sexes match was serious business.
Together, Billie Jean and Bobby served up a cultural spectacle that resonated far beyond the tennis court, sparking discussions in bedrooms and boardrooms that continue to reverberate today.Women are still fighting for equal pay for equal work, in all fields, even filmmaking. And to show that things are moving in that direction, Emma Stone is producer and star ready to serve up a new TV series on Netflix.