A thoroughly light hearted, unpreachy film that works well as a social piece on our times as a culture that still doesn’t give our women the respect they so deserve.
Written By: Nigel Asipa
The name Billie Jean King. Got a nice rhythm doesn’t it? It’s a pretty cool name at that. It’s a name you wouldn’t forget that easily.
It’s a name that’s synonymous with Tennis. King is regarded as one of the greatest and successful tennis players in the sports’ history. She prided herself as an activist for gender equality, an issue that has made its way into other organisations still today such as sports, business, politics, Hollywood etc. The fact that I’ve put etc. at the end there is troubling in itself.
The year’s 1973. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was at the height of her fame, winning grand slams and various tournaments while also fending off male supremacy to ensure the future for women in the sport challenging the likes of Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer to agree to raise the pay rate for women. He did a press release announcing how the prize at women’s tennis tournaments will equate to 1/8 of what the men’s tennis tournaments are worth.
As Kramer sees it, “people pay to see the men play, it’s more exciting” while also bookending his points of women’s inferiority of the sport with the word ‘fact’. Accompanied by Sarah Silverman’s silver-tongued Gladys Heldman, Her and King start their own tournament but are penniless from the start. Once they score a sponsorship with Virginia Slims cigarettes, things begin to look their way.
King sparks a relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) at a hair salon and begins an affair that threatens not only King’s marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) but also the integrity of her campaign for women’s rights.
Meanwhile, we have retired world-class tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in a pickle with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) as his gambling habits are becoming an issue. For Bobby “life’s a gamble’. At a gambling anonymous meeting, he makes an impassioned speech on how such meetings shouldn’t exist as it’s only a matter of perfecting one’s craft rather than being diagnosed as having an addiction.
Riggs calls King one night, proposing a match between them as he calls it “Male chauvinist pig vs hairy-legged feminist” on primetime television with a grand prize total of $100,000. Privy to Riggs’ schemes, King wasn’t interested. After defeating world-class female player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in the ‘Mother’s Day Massacre’, King begrudgingly accepts.
Directed by Valerie Davis and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine that also starred Carell), they sought to venture into the psyches of the two players that uncovers the internal struggles they both endured, as well as being inspired by the political climate at the time (Trump vs Hilary).
Emma Stone gives perhaps the performance of her career, maybe even besting her Oscar-winning work in La La Land. Her performance never feels like an impersonation. Her heroine is fierce, graceful and dignified that enables Stone to give her Billie Jean King stones rather than balls. She’s so magnetic that she provides King with the most infectious smile, imbuing her with the most winning personality.
Carell is an absolute hoot as Riggs. There are pictures at the end of the film that showcases the spot on makeup to capture both the time period and the likeness of their characters. I even see some Michael Scott in his buffoonery and impertinence. It’s excellent work from a fantastic comedian.
Alan Cummings scores some laughs as King’s fashion guru Cuthbert Tinling (Watch an interview with him and Riseborough on how the election has made the film all the more pertinent), and Riseborough is luminous and delicate as King’s lover. Riseborough’s and Stone’s chemistry is off the charts with some scenes that lend the film some intimacy.
The match itself was one of the most publicised sports events of all time, with viewership 90 million strong. King never considered herself an icon. She just wanted to help women gain respect, regardless of genetics. She never thought women to be better than men, only the same opportunities that are open to men.
Thematically it deals with topics like responsibility, self-discovery and liberation. Early on Kramer saw the futility of the independence King strove for, even with all the so-called respect he had for her. Even with someone of her stature, she endured constant condescension and bigotry.
It’s a tricky act to tell multiple stories into one, especially when it’s behind the scenes look into a cultural event. But the tone is maintained as a thoroughly light-hearted, unpreachy film. The direction from both Davis and Dayton that has a great sense of momentum throughout with fantastic casting, a witty script and timely themes that works well as a social piece on our times as a culture that still doesn’t give our women the respect they so deserve.