October 17, 2017 – I was expecting this to be more of a comedy than it was, but it is a surprisingly compelling and frank biopic about the two people involved in one of the most famous and important sports events of the last century.
Emma Stone (“La La Land”) gives a tremendous performance as tennis star and political activist Billie Jean King, and Steve Carrell (“The Big Short”) gives a compelling performance as gambler, tennis star and hustler Bobbie Riggs. This film is about events leading up to the historic exhibition tennis match they played at the Houston Astrodome in Texas on September 20, 1973. This tennis match was seen by 140 million people worldwide, and in winning it, King struck a major blow for the cause of equal rights for women.
Major players in the film include Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman of “Independence Day: Resurgence”) a former tennis star and power in the world of professional tennis, and Gladys Heldman (played by Sarah Silverman of “A Million Ways to Die in the West”) founder of World Tennis Magazine and founder of the Virginia Slims women's tennis tour.
The story picks up King arguing with Kramer about equal pay for women tennis players, arguing that ticket sales for women's tennis equalled that of the men's games, so the prize money should be equal. When Kramer said no, King said the women would not only boycott future events unless the purse was equal, but the women would form their own tour. After she walked out of that meeting, Heldman asked her how she intended to form a woman's tour, and King replied she had no idea, but was determined to do it.
King was able to persuade a number of players to join the boycott and Heldman was able to find a sponsor, a tobacco company, which backed the Virginia Slims tour. This would later become the Women's Tennis Association, founded in 1973 by Billie Jean King.
The story picks up Bobbie Riggs, bored with his desk job, sneaking out to gamble with Kramer and others in card games and tennis matches, even after he had promised his wife, Priscilla (played by Elisabeth Shue of “The Saint”) that he would stop gambling. There is a scene at a Gambler's Anonymous meeting where Riggs gives a impassioned defense of gambling so persuasive he blows up the meeting.
Riggs, a onetime champion tennis star, is struggling to find a way to be relevant again, when he decides to challenge the number one tennis player in the world, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee of “CHIPS”) to a match. At that time King, is having an affair with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough of “Nocturnal Animals”) and her tennis game has slipped.
Riggs easily beats Court in an exhibition tennis match and brags he can beat any woman in the world. King, determined to save the relevance of the women's tennis tours, agrees to play Riggs, and dedicates herself to defeating him. Riggs promotes the match, bets on himself, and basks in the glow of his victory over Court, confident that he can beat King just as easily. He is relevant again, but his marriage to Priscilla is on the rocks. She throws him out of the house for gambling, and lying about it.
The tennis match between King and Riggs is convincingly filmed, and it is compelling tennis, too, with some great shots by both players. The emotional aftermath of the match, for both King and Riggs is equally compelling. For all his bluster, his duplicity and his statements against women, Riggs is a sympathetic character in the film. He is not portrayed as a villain, but more of an obstacle to be overcome by King.
King's own struggles with her sexual identity and her marriage (her husband, Larry is given a sensitive portrayal by Austin Stowell of “Whiplash”) are explored extensively in the film. Usually this level of frankness in a biographical film is reserved for persons no longer living, like Riggs. Both King and Riggs are well fleshed out as characters. The story is well written by Simon Beaufoy (“Everest” and “127 Hours”) and is directed capably by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”). This is a compelling film. It rates a B.
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