Early in the movie, in a confrontation (one of many throughout the movie), tennis tycoon Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) tries to enlighten Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) to the obvious tennis fact-of-life that "people pay to see men play". At around the same time (1973) I remember reading an article in "Sports Illustrated" entitled "Four Queens Make A Full House". It eludes me whether that was before or after this iconic match, but that really doesn't matter. Changes were coming, and this "battle of the sexes" has been generally recognized as a significant catalyst.
Two of the "four queens" appeared in the movie: King and Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). The third was Evonne Goolagong, Australian Aboriginal whose natural, graceful movement on court was described not as "running" but as "floating". The fourth, Chris Evert, was the women's counterpart of Bjorn Borg in the context of their tenacious playing style. "Players thinking of outlasting them in a match by playing into the next day better think again. They are prepared to play into the next week!", someone once said.
This was the time in sports history when the Miami Dolphins ruled the NFL and the Montreal Canadiens the NHL. In tennis, wooden rackets were still the only kind available (hard to imagine, I know), and the most popular brand had the signature of Jack Kramer on it!
So much for backdrop of the spectator sports universe. Back to the movie. There seems to be a general consensus among critics that this is a good movie, but fails to go deep enough into the key issue of pay equality for women in tennis. Maybe it is just me, but these critics all seem to gloss over another equally significant theme, King's relationship with her lover, hair dresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a "phase", as her husband Larry King (Austin Stowell) said in the movie. Still, the movie could use an alternative title "A hard choice for Billie Jean: Marilyn or tennis".
That story is well known to tennis players. At that time, even the non-tennis-playing public's imagination was set on fire by this "circus". Over-the-hill champion, compulsive gambler, sort of a hustler, bit of a clown and, best of all, a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) somehow is inspired by the idea of challenging the top woman tennis player to a match. King, fully focusing on promoting her quest of a women's tour, flatly turns him down. When Court defeats King (on any given day, any of these top players could beat any other) in a match and becomes number one, she also becomes ready prey for Riggs. The result is one-sided, Riggs beating Court easily. But the fact that Court beats King and Riggs beats Court does not automatically mean that Riggs will beat King on any given day. The challenge has become something that King cannot afford to decline. In the match that becomes a major entertainment event, King beats Riggs in three straight sets. This is the tennis part of the story.
The other story has been given almost equal attention as tennis (if not equal screen time). While the tennis match is tackled with sarcastic humor, the love affair is handled with tender loving care. Barnett, an experienced lesbian lover, initiates the relationship with King who hitherto has only one person in her love life - her husband. But, even more importantly, love life is not her priority. Tennis is. The alternative title I suggested above tells all.
2018 Golden Globe results were announced yesterday. Emma Stone did not win Best Actress back-to-back, and she was not expected to. Still, the nomination gives her recognition for tackling a role that can arguably be considered casting against type. While not reaching the height of Gary Oldman as Churchill (doubt if anybody can), Stone did a good job in hiding the sweet darling of a persona and bringing up a woman that sometimes is almost sexless (especially when concentrating on tennis). It is through the superb, sensuous portrayal of Marilyn by Andrea Riseborough that the sensuous side of Billie Jean is brought to the surface. Steve Carell's Bobby Riggs as crafted in this movie leans towards being favorable, "humanized" as one critic puts it. There is solid support from the rest of the cast: Sarah Silverman as the no-nonsense tour manager Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as outspoken buddy Rosie Casals, Elisabeth Shue as Riggs's rich and ultimately tolerant wife Priscalla, as well as aforementioned Pullman, McNamee and Stowell. Personally, a great delight is to see archived footage of the one and only Howard Cosell, who at that time owned Monday nights TV screens in the NFL season. As well, there is a blink-and-you'll-miss footage of Chris Evert intimating in an interview that she gave King the better odds.