Out of print for more than 30 years, now available for the first time as
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Click the book to read the first chapter and for
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Battle of the Sexes
by Tony Medley
Runtime 123 minutes.
This title has a
double meaning. It’s not just about the 55 year old Bobby Riggs (Steve
Carell)-29 year old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) tennis match in 1973;
it’s equally about LGBTQ rights. In fact the first half is a snorer that
concentrates on the latter.
Oh, sure, we see King
confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, who doesn’t begin to capture Jack’s
haughtiness) in planning for the Pacific Southwest Tournament (PST). But
it doesn’t explain that the PST was a great tournament for decades, just
a step below the Grand Slam tournaments because all the top players,
from Bill Tilden on, would come to Los Angeles to play in it en route to
the Australian Open, which was then the last big tournament of the year,
instead of the first, which it is now.
importance of the PST should have been an essential element that would
have shown what a huge step it was for the women to withdraw due to
unequal prizes for men vis á vis women. They could have cut all the
lesbian sex scenes a little shorter and explained the prominence of the
PST because that was a lot more germane to the movie, and the revolution
King instigated, than the sex.
Frankly, the concentration on sex serves to belittle the enormous risk
King took in boycotting the PST.
As an indication of the power Kramer and
his attitude had on tennis back then, my friend, TV Producer Bob Seizer,
who worked closely with Kramer back in the day, tells the story about
when Jack was running the Pro tour. Pro tennis in those days consisted
of Jack playing the top male amateur player from the prior year who had
just turned pro in a series of matches throughout the country. Also on
the bill was a women’s match between Pauline Betts and Gussie Moran.
Jack owned the tour, so one evening he went to Pauline and told her that
she was beating Gussie too badly, nine times out of 10, and that she
should let up so that crowds would come to watch. Pauline responded,
“But you’re beating Pancho Gonzales just as badly.” Jack responded,
“Yes, but I’m the king!” and he wasn’t kidding.
Who knew that what
inspired King to beat Riggs was the last minute arrival of her female
lover to watch the match to support King? At least that’s what directors
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (script by Simon Beaufoy) would have
you believe. They spend an inordinate amount of time on King’s graphic
affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). How
could this film be rated PG-13 and not R with all the sex and King’s
infidelity to her then husband, Larry (Austin Stowell)?
The second half is
better as it spends more time on tennis which is what the promotion of
the film would have you believe it is about. The shots of the match
itself are very good. The production notes do not state that they used
videos of the actual match. They do state that they used two tennis
players to double for Stone, but nothing is said about doubling for
Carrel. Stone and Carell are close enough in appearance to King and
Riggs that it looks like the actors are playing the points. All I can
say is that the points they show are clearly played by tennis players
because they are far too athletic for either of these two actors to
accomplish, even if they are able distinguish a tennis racket from a
While Carell and
Stone give good performances, Stone is far too girlie to be a credible
representation of King. Actually, I thought the best performance in the
movie was by Elisabeth Shue, who plays Riggs’ wealthy wife, Priscilla.
Unmentioned is the
rumor that Riggs threw the match in return for forgiveness of a gambling
debt to the mob, a plausible story since Riggs was a gambling man all
his life. On his first trip to Wimbledon in 1939 he bet $500, half his
annual income at the time, that he would win the Men’s Singles, Men’s
Doubles, and Mixed Doubles, something that had never been achieved
theretofore. He did, in fact, win all three. As a result, he also won
what today would be close to $2 million. This story could have been an
excellent set up for portraying to the audience the basis of Riggs’
character. But I guess King’s lesbian sex was more important to Dayton
and Faris. Oh, well.