Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Battle of the Sexes

(USA, UK, 2017)

It was the biggest sports event up to that time, with 90,000,000 viewers worldwide. You couldn’t escape the hype. I watched it, and was quite happy to see Bobby Riggs get trounced by Billie Jean King. This movie perfectly recreates that time, even going so far as to have the cinematography slightly fuzzed and faded, as if it had been shot in the ‘70s with that awful clothing and hair. What were we thinking?

In spite of being such a load of bullshit, it was hugely important for women’s tennis. The “ladies” were getting paid a tenth of what the men were pulling down. Billie Jean and others had left the horribly sexist USLTA and formed the Virginia Slims Circuit. (I don’t think they had to go so far as to smoke the things.) After a few years they were eating the USLTA’s lunch. This circus in the Astrodome gave women’s tennis the boost it needed. Now, and for a long time now, women’s tennis is the only sport where the women are as well-paid as the men. Many tennis people are more attracted to the women’s game than the men. I certainly am, though I’m not a tennis fan. There have been many female tennis superstars, and they have Billie Jean King and the “Original Nine” who risked their whole careers by leaving the USLTA to thank for that: Rosemary Casals, Nancy Rickey, Peaches Bartkowitz, Kristy Pigeon, Valeria Zeigenfuss, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville Reid, and Judy Tegart Dalton.

The supporting cast is terrific, led by Sarah Silverman (who is showing she can do a hell of a lot more than just be the funniest female stand-up ever), Andrea Riseborough, and Bill Pullman. But it all hinges on who is cast as Billie Jean and who is Bobby. How about Emma Stone and Steve Carrell? That work for you? They are both great.

A side story is the romance between Billie Jean and her hairdresser. (In real life her secretary.) They have muddied up the real details, but that’s okay, because the affair and how it affected her life is not important to this plot. Suffice it to say that Billie Jean was maybe the first athlete to come out as gay, or bisexual. Surprisingly, her husband Steve seemed to be all right with it. It is estimated that she lost a couple million dollars in endorsements because sponsors didn’t want to be associated with a dyke. We have made some progress. Look at Ellen Degeneres, one of the most beloved people in the country today.