First Hit: Thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and educational.
What makes this film work really well are the actors and clear direction that added insight into one of the most outrageous and important moments in women’s sports history.
Being old enough to recall the original battle of the sexes tennis matches (both one and two), it was important to make it true to the story while adding depth of character. That is what this film did. Learning more about Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and their paths was powerful, clearly defined and heartwarming.
King wanted equal money for the women who played in the same tournaments that men played in. Receiving less than 10% of what the men earned in winning the U.S. Open was degrading to women and women’s tennis everywhere. She wanted equal pay because they put people in the seats just as well as the men.
USLT (United States Lawn Tennis) leader, tennis great, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) told King that this wasn’t possible and that men were just better, stronger, and more interesting tennis players. Being rebuffed on her request, she and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), founder of World Tennis magazine decided to start their own tennis tour.
This tour got off to a rocky start but when Virginia Slims (cigarette maker) started sponsoring their events with real prize money, women’s tennis started to take hold and capture their supportive audiences.
Then there was incurable gambler Bobby Riggs who lived very well off of his wife’s money. Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) loved her husband, his funny ways but struggled with his constant gambling. Fed up after he comes home with a Rolls Royce he won in a card game, she kicks him out of the house.
Nowhere to go, Bobby as a former Wimbledon singles, doubles and mix doubles tennis champion, he carries through with an idea one of his gambling buddies comes up with. Could a fifty-five-year-old former Wimbledon champ beat the best women’s tennis player? Capitalizing on this idea, he hounds Billie Jean to play him and offers her $35K. She refuses him and eventually Bobby calls on the new women’s #1 player, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to take on the challenge. She does and gets publicly trounced by Bobby in two straight sets. As expected this hurts women's tennis and therefore Billie Jean decides to make this right.
All through this Billie slowly is discovering she is attracted to women, which in those days was not well accepted. The scene where Billie becomes gob-socked by her attraction to a woman was amazing. As she’s getting her hair done for photos just prior to their first Virginia Slims tournament, the hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), starts touching Billie’s hair and you can feel them both melt away. This was one of the best, most effective scenes in the film because of the acting and direction. I sat there and felt Billie Jean breaking down and opening up with barely any words spoken.
Of course, as we all know, after the Court fiasco, King plays Bobby and makes history.
The tennis was extremely well done. The director recreated many of the winning points just like they actually happened. Billie and women’s tennis did get invited back into the USLT tour for equal pay because of Billie Jean’s perseverance and skill.
Learning what drove Billie Jean as a little girl to excel in tennis, how her husband supported her throughout her personal discovery and how chauvinistic men thought of women was superbly covered.
Stone was amazing. The scene of her sitting in the hair salon meeting Marilyn for the first time was amazing. How she slowly evolved Billie’s character towards acceptance of both her tennis greatness and her attraction to women was sublime. Carell was perfect. He played Bobby just as we saw him on television. But what made this really work besides the physical likeness was giving his home life honest depth. Risenborough was wonderful as Billie’s first lover. Pullman was great as Kramer. Silverman was exquisite as the woman who put together the Virginia Slims tour together out of nothing. Natalie Morales as co-tennis player Rosie Casals was super. She reflected the persona of the real Rosie. Shue as Riggs wife was perfect. It was wonderful to see Shue again and her reflection of a wealthy woman of the era was spot-on. Stowell was good as Billie Jean’s understanding and supportive husband. McNamee was good as tennis rival Margaret Court. In real life Court’s current homophobic rants echo the subtle opinions her and her husband expressed in the film. Alan Cumming as Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling tennis clothing designer for the women on the Virginia Slims tour was excellent. I liked his encouragement to King at the end of the film. Simon Beaufoy wrote an excellent script. He caught all the nuances of the time and I appreciated it. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris as co-directors were spot on in all ways. I loved how they integrated television clips of the time, 1973, (Howard Cosell and Chrissy Evert among them) into a film made in 2017. Their vision was sublime.
Overall: For anyone interested in knowing how today’s women’s tennis stars got the equal money recognition they deserve, see this film.