of the Sexes
It really was a cultural phenomenon, though it seems hard to
believe now. A 55-year-old
sometime tennis champion turned hustler and gambler, Bobby Riggs (Steve
Carrell) claimed he could beat any women's tennis player in the world.
The one who was ranked number one at the time, Australian Margaret
Court, accepted the challenge---and lost.
A lot of smug chauvinists chortled in the back rooms of exclusive
country clubs. A lot of
hard-working women closed their eyes and shook their heads that the
culture wars had somehow come down to this, including the women on the pro
tennis tour, among them the former No.1, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone),
who decided the culture wars needed another chapter.
She accepted Bobby Rigg's challenge, and this match generated a lot
of publicity, and more prize money than any championship on either the
men's or women's tours.
This movie concentrates on the who the main characters were behind
the scenes, and the actors prove up to the challenge in portraying the
complexities and nuances. Bobby
Riggs was a showman who played up the sexist angle, but actually he was
married with a grown son. Ironicially,
his wife was the one with the money, so he was hardly in a position to
play the paradigm of the superior gender.
But he knew how to generate publicity.
And he reveled in the spotlight.
Billie Jean King's persona was more complicated.
She was married at the time, also, but she's shown here beginning
an affair with her hairdresser, a Californian named Marilyn (Andrea
Riseborough), at about the same time she was leading a group of women's
tennis players away from the USLTA, led by the slick, condescending Jack
Kramer (Bill Pullman), because there was such a large discrepancy between
the prize money for the men's and women's tour events.
Fortunately for the nascent women's tour, they had a terrific
supporter in Business Mananger Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), who
managed to land their first sponsorship:
Virginia Slims, the makers of cigarettes aimed at women's
consumption (that wouldn't be politically correct today, either).
Billie Jean is depicted struggling through a sexual identity crisis
during this period, mainly because the society was so not ready to accept
“open” lesbians (much less other gays, not to even mention bisexuals
and transgenders) that there was genuine fear of losing precious corporate
sponsorships. There's a tender
moment when Billie Jean's (gay) wardrobe designer hugs her and says,
“One day, they'll let us be who we are and love who we want.”
But for now, it was all about the tennis match that at one level,
meant absolutely nothing, but at another level, captured a national
television audience and filled the Astrodome and constituted the breakfast
table chat for Americans everywhere.
The Virginia Slims advertising slogan during those days was
“You've come a long way, baby.” Well,
we'd all like to believe that about gender equality in these United
States, particularly in the workplace.
But there are also many who will say we've got miles to go before