Battle of the Sexes: Living History

A scene from Battle of the Sexes featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.
Photo by Fox Searchlight.

Last Wednesday, my friend Tom and I saw the movie, Battle of the Sexes. Tom said the movie was better than he thought it would be, and I overheard a woman in back of us say to her friends, after the movie, “Wasn’t this great? One of the best movies I’ve seen lately.”

Yes, the movie, based on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, has received a range of mostly positive reviews. I agree that it is worth seeing, especially for the history it represents for those of us who lived it and for others who need to know about it.

The real characters portrayed in the movie, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King and does a nice job, but in my opinion physically she is more Chris Evert than Billie Jean King. In her 20’s, Billie Jean King was slim, had a pretty face with a big big warm smile and sported loads of sometimes unruly hair. She also had extremely muscular arms and legs and was not a shrinking violet. She was so tough that when Chris Evert came along, it was as if a woman from a previous century was now playing tennis. So for me, Emma Stone’s portrayal was physically just a bit too demure.

For me, Steve Carell did a great job in the movie as Bobby Riggs. He looks the part and is just as silly a showman as the real thing. He even has a nude scene … and he looks good. (Bobby Riggs passed away in 1995.)

This is the strong Billie Jean King that was the world’s number one woman’s tennis player in six different years.

A surprise in the movie was Sarah Silverman who played Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis Magazine and a supporter of Billie Jean King and the other female pros forming the Virginia Slims Circuit. Sarah was a scene stealer.

Why did I want to see this movie? Because I lived through the history portrayed in Battle of the Sexes. I was a tennis player when I was younger and I watched the actual Battle of the Sexes on TV and was glad for the outcome. More importantly, I remember going to Mid-Town Tennis Club in Chicago sometime in the 1970s to see a demonstration match between Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals. What I remember about the match was that I had never seen a woman hit a tennis ball as hard as Billie Jean hit; she would drive a ball right at her opponent if need be. (I have never seen the Williams sisters play tennis in person but I’m sure they would be even more impressive.) Also at Mid-Town, for the first time in my life, I saw a young girl ask a female, Billie Jean King, for an autograph. In those days, women athletes just weren’t typically asked for autographs. I never forgot that moment.

Because Billie Jean King was outspoken on behalf of women athletes and women’s equality in general, she is credited with helping secure the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and in convincing the U.S. Open to became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to both sexes. All four Grand Slams now offer equal prize money to women and men. In her career, Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles and 20 Wimbledon titles. She was Number one in the world six years between 1966 and 1975.

Prior to the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs posed for a number of promotional pictures.

In 1981 Billie Jean King was sued for palimony by her former female secretary and lover. She remained married to Larry King during that time, but six years later fell in love with her doubles partner, Ilana Kloss, and divorced. Billie Jean King became the first prominent sports person to admit she was a lesbian. I have to say that when this news broke, I was shocked and disappointed, but like the rest of the world, I have come to understand such choices.

In the movie, the heavy emphasis on Billie Jean King’s emerging sexual attraction to another women gets plenty of attention.

I thought that part of the movie was a bit heavy-handed, but Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris said the private lives of King and Riggs were a deliberate part of the movie.

Billie Jean King waving to fans from an entry float as she is carried into stadium prior to her tennis match with Bobby Riggs.
Photo by Sahm Doherty//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The last part of the movie dealing with the actual 1973 tennis match at the Houston Astrodome was exciting. The tension in the film had definitely been building and the tennis shots seen were spectacular, involving, I understand, some talented doubles. I could even see the slices that Bobby Riggs employed during the match.

Attached with this article is a video taken prior to the actual Battle of the Sexes match and features a number of well-known tennis names of the time; surprisingly, many thought Bobby Riggs would be the winner. Forty years later, a claim was made that Bobby Riggs threw the match to pay off gambling debts, but Billie Jean King disputes that claim. Some 90 million people worldwide watched the match on TV, and it did have an impact on many young lives. I wouldn’t mind seeing the actual match from beginning to end again.

Billie Jean King today.
Photo by Diane Taylor from TV interview with Seth Meyers.

Seeing Billie Jean King today on TV, age 73, she still has that broad toothy smile. She seems proud of her life, not so much as a tennis player but as an advocate for equal rights in all phases of society.

She is also aware of the recent terrible Sunday night in Las Vegas.

On the Billie Jean King website is this message:

“Las Vegas, you’ve been on my mind I’ve always enjoyed visiting your city. Sending my love.”


2 responses on “Battle of the Sexes: Living History

  1. nice article Diane, especially about the autograph, so many things we take for granted in this day and age that werent necessarily so back in the day! I have always been an admirer of Billie Jean she make many good things happen.

  2. A piece of history that should not be forgotten – and what a poor loser to say he “let her win”! bah
    Also nice to see Glen Campbell in video.
    Another good movie I just recently saw – although it’s been out a while, is Hidden Figures.

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