I’m going to do something I never do in these pieces, and that’s write about a movie before I see it. (And after of course; what I write before seeing the movie will only be the first portion of the essay.)
That’s because the topic of the movie—the tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King—is something I find quite interesting, and I want to write about my memories of the event itself, things I’ve found out about it since, and my opinions about different aspects of it. I’m also going to predict how I think the movie will handle these various angles, given the artistic license movies allow themselves to simply make things up even when the subject of the movie is real people and real events. And then once I’ve seen the movie, I’ll compare how closely the movie matches reality, and how closely it matches what I predicted of it.
Normally I read a certain amount about a movie before seeing it. I read descriptions of it, and at least a few reviews of it on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. But because of the unusual way I’m writing this piece, I’m going into this movie “cold.” I have no idea if it’s highly regarded or not; I have not read about the approach it takes to its subject matter. I haven’t heard in advance where it’s accurate and where it’s inaccurate. I’ve seen the commercial for the movie—the 15 or 30 second thing on TV, not a full trailer at the theater—and that’s it. So about all I know is what two stars play the leads; beyond that I can only guess.
As far as what I say here at the start about the Riggs-King match itself, I’ll be relying on my own contemporaneous memories, since I watched the event and related things before and after on TV, and read accounts in newspapers and magazines; what I read about it fairly soon after in one of Howard Cosell’s autobiographies that devotes a chapter to it; and a recent lengthy and very detailed investigative ESPN article I read online about it. (That ESPN article might have mentioned the movie then in preparation, but if it did I don’t remember, so I won’t be influenced by that as far as any predictions I make, at least not consciously.)
OK, to begin, there are certain things that strike me as particularly dumb about the whole “battle of the sexes” framework for this match and how people interpreted its outcome.
First of all, what was the match supposed to prove exactly? That was treated as obvious at the time—on the one side were those who believed men were superior to women, and on the other side were those who believed men and women were equal; the match would settle which was right—but parse that at all and you realize it needs, and cannot bear, much greater specificity to be meaningful.
To some, the idea was, “If a 55 year old, long-retired male player can beat one of the current top female players in the world, then that shows that any man can beat any woman.” OK, even limiting things to tennis, and not to some kind of alleged male superiority across the board, Riggs winning this match would have proven no such thing. What you’d need in order to prove that is for the worst possible male player—say a 110 year old, paralyzed, blind guy with advanced dementia who has never played tennis in his life and is incapable of rising from his bed, or better yet maybe a guy in a coma—to defeat the best woman tennis player in the world, convincingly and consistently over many matches.
Yeah, I know that’s completely ridiculous. But that’s because the “any man can beat any woman” thing that so many of Riggs’s supporters thought this was about is completely ridiculous.
On the other hand, did King’s winning somehow establish some kind of equality between men and women (or for that matter the superiority of women, since King won after all)? Again, even limiting things to tennis, the answer is a clear no.
King was one of the very best women tennis players in the world; Riggs was an excellent player for a 55 year old, but wouldn’t have been remotely competitive against the top male players in the world in their 20s and 30s. In order to establish that women tennis players are at least the equal of men tennis players, King would have had to hold her own or win against players like Stan Smith, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, etc. Or if Riggs was the 1,200th best male player in the world or whatever when he was 55, then whoever was the 1,200th best female player would have had to hold her own or win against him.
So the very idea that this would ever “settle” something about the relative merits and abilities of male and female tennis players (let alone of men and women in general) was absurd on its face all along. Before the match ever happened it was self-evident that “any man can beat any women” was a falsehood, and it was self-evident that if you compare apples to apples (the best man against the best women, the 100th ranked man against the 100th ranked woman, a decent recreational male player against a decent recreational female player, a beginner male against a beginner female, etc.) men are much better at an athletic contest like tennis than are women; after the match, those two things remained self-evident, as they would have if Riggs had won.
Now, obviously I’m not saying that the match and its outcome had no importance to debates about feminism, and the equality of the sexes or lack of same, and all of that. That’s because it’s one of those “perception is reality” things. The match was aggressively hyped as a battle of the sexes, and people were dumb enough to go along with that and develop some vague sense that it was somehow going to determine if men are superior or men and women are equal, and as a result of those beliefs and attitudes, King’s victory genuinely did have some symbolic importance in furthering the Women’s Liberation movement, while a hypothetical Riggs win would have further entrenched male chauvinism and made the struggle for women’s rights that much tougher, at least in the short term.
The other thing that’s most troubling to me about how the Riggs-King match is remembered is that nearly always the Riggs-Court match, which Riggs won, is completely ignored. It’s as if some female heavyweight boxer had come along in the 70s, fought Ali and Frazier, beaten one and lost to the other, and her win was ignored by history while everyone remembered the bout she had lost.
Back then, the number one female tennis player in the world was Margaret Court. King was second.
I’m not saying those rankings are infallible as far as who was the better player at that time. Let’s stipulate instead that for all intents and purposes they were about equal (and for that matter that there were probably two or three other women players who were at about that same level). But it’s not like Riggs beat a nobody in Court, and then when he moved up to play the superstar King he couldn’t hang with her. He beat a top player and he lost to a top player.
But as I say, the Riggs-Court match is largely forgotten, unjustly. So a little more about that, or at least my memories of it.
Riggs did indeed prefer to play King, and tried to goad her into a match. (She dismissed him without hesitation. Her (accurate) take on it was that she had nothing to gain—as far as women’s tennis that is; she could have gained whatever she’d be paid for the match—in that if she won people would say it meant nothing because all she had done was beat an old man, whereas if she lost it would be treated as a big blow to whether women should be taken seriously as tennis players—and as athletes in general, and even as people.) But this wasn’t because King was the best player, but because she was substantially better known in the United States and he figured a match with King would garner far more publicity and therefore far more money for him than a match with Court. In the end he “settled” for the number one woman tennis player in the world because she was the only one of the two who agreed to play him.
The match between Riggs and Court was sort of a big deal—certainly Riggs tried to hype it into as big a deal as possible—but was dwarfed by the later match between Riggs and King, hence why it is largely forgotten today. It was televised on a weekend afternoon, whereas the Riggs-King match was prime time all the way.
Riggs-Court was a slaughter. It was best two out of three sets, with Riggs winning 6-2, 6-1, and as I recall it didn’t feel even as close as that score would indicate.
King at that point felt that the damage had been done to women’s tennis, that by beating Riggs she could undo that damage, and that therefore she was no longer in a nothing-to-gain position by accepting Riggs’s challenge. Hence the much more hyped “Battle of the Sexes” was on.
I believe it was in Cosell’s book that I read of how Riggs pretty much gave in to King on every point when it came to the details of the match, including that instead of two out of three sets, it would be three out of five sets (as the much younger King wanted stamina to be a bigger factor in the match). The one thing Riggs did insist on and get was a rematch clause. I don’t know if that was because he was concerned he might lose, or more likely he just wanted the extra money of their playing two matches instead of one.
I remember Cosell broadcasting the match, being as appealingly and obnoxiously Cosellian as ever. He was joined by women’s tennis pro Rosie Casals, who openly rooted for King and missed no opportunity to insult Riggs. I don’t remember if there was a third person on the broadcast to balance her out.
As I recall, the social ramifications of the match were both played up and treated in a lighthearted way on the broadcast, with the theme music being a goofy “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”
One thing I was struck by in the match itself is that at least in the first couple sets, Riggs made little effort on balls that would have been difficult to get to. I interpreted that as a matter of pacing himself. That is, it looked to me like his calculation was that if, say, going all out would give him a 15% chance of winning a point, he instead just conceded it. That would be a blunder, or just lazy, if you had as good stamina as your opponent—15% is greater than 0% after all—but it’s a reasonable strategy if you’re 25 years older than your opponent and faced with playing as many as five sets.
King took the first set 6-4 and the second set 6-3. Could Riggs have won at least one of those sets if he had gone all out on every point? Maybe, but my guess is no. He probably would have picked up another two or three or four points over the course of a set, but that just means he would have lost the set a little closer, not won it.
In the third set it looked like he had abandoned that strategy; there’s no reason to save your energy when you’re in an elimination situation. But he looked pretty exhausted futilely chasing after shots, and King dispatched him 6-3. Had he gone all out from the beginning, presumably he would have reached that point of exhaustion somewhat earlier. So maybe he would have lost something like 7-5, 6-4, 6-1 instead of 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
You could also speculate that the reason it looked like he wasn’t going all out those first two sets is because he lost them on purpose, for one of two possible reasons.
One, he was hustling. There were reports that once the odds shifted and he became a major underdog down two sets to zero he tried to place a large wager on himself (and that he couldn’t find any takers, precisely because people thought he was hustling).
Or two, maybe he lost not just the first two sets on purpose but all three, because he took a dive in the match.
At the time the latter didn’t seem very likely to me at all—Cosell in his book is dismissive of the idea of a fix—and there are still important considerations against it. But ESPN did a lengthy and seemingly exhaustively researched retrospective on the event recently—which I alluded to above—that concluded that Riggs did indeed throw the match.
Riggs was one of those guys—Chico Marx was another prime example—who was a phenomenally good gambler in one or more areas, but who had a real sickness with gambling that made him unable to control his gambling impulse in other areas where he was not good at all.
He was a terrific hustler in games of skill. He had a savant-like ability to read people and to know exactly how to set up a wager such that he would be almost certain to win, yet it wouldn’t appear that way to his opponent.
So he famously played all kinds of crazy tennis matches where he would accept various goofy handicaps against a player of lesser ability—maybe he would dress in some outrageous outfit that restricted his movement, or he would use a frying pan instead of a tennis racket, or he would play while holding a dog on a leash—and he would almost always win. He’d do similar hustles at golf, different card games, or just random weird challenges. (An episode of The Odd Couple captured this hilariously by having him bet the hapless Oscar Madison that Oscar couldn’t type his name in ten seconds without an error. An “Oscar Madisox” and an “Oscar Madisoy” later, Oscar’s wallet was considerably lighter, leading to one of the all-time great Murray the Cop lines: “Oh Oscar, if you were Chinese, you da won!”)
But then he would turn around and lose huge amounts on things like sportsbetting, where he had no edge like that at all, any more than your typical compulsive gambler does. So he had the skills to be an excellent gambler, but his indiscriminate love of action made him a terrible gambler.
I knew the gambling had been a serious problem for him in his life, but not to the extent the ESPN story revealed. Evidently he got in way over his head to Mob-backed bookies, which is as hazardous to one’s life as it sounds.
That much appears to be indisputable. ESPN further claims that since the match, people who were in a position to have direct knowledge of the situation have explicitly stated that Riggs threw the match at the behest of the people he owed money to.
I thought ESPN made a pretty convincing case. I hadn’t given the theory that Riggs took a dive more than a very small probability before, but now I suppose I’d put it at 50%-75% likely.
Besides the testimony of people who were in a position to know, another thing you could read as evidence in favor of the theory has to do with Riggs’s post-match relationship with King. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, they became good friends, and King has always defended Riggs. But she has defended him in two ways that one could argue are in tension with each other.
One, she defends him from any accusation that he was dishonest enough to throw the match, insisting that they were such good friends for so long after that that surely he would have confessed to her at some point. Two, she defends him from any accusation that he believed any of the extreme—and frankly at times vile—sexist claptrap he uttered in promotion of the match, insisting that it was all his playing a role, and that in fact he was forever happy and proud of how he and King had jointly brought about such significant progress for women’s tennis and the Women’s Liberation movement in general through their match.
OK, here’s the problem I see: The match constituted such progress precisely because King won and he lost. So if his secret motive all along was to pretend to be the most vicious dragon possible so that King and her cause would gain the most by slaying him, he could only further that goal by being slain. So if he were to not take a dive and win, he’d be acting contrary to this supposed progressive motive.
I’m not saying that consideration proves he threw the match, not by a long shot. Maybe he wanted to win, but saw the social progress angle as at least a consolation prize for losing, and maybe over time he came to increasingly value the feminist consequences of the match such that he changed his mind and decided in retrospect it was better he’d lost. Or maybe, being the consummate bullshitter he was, he went all out to win the match, but after he lost it he decided to do or say whatever would be best for him and his reputation, so he became friends with King and talked up how beneficial it had been for society that she won.
So I would say that this consideration is one piece of evidence in favor of the theory that he took a dive, not that it’s anything conclusive.
But there is also evidence against the theory that he took a dive. For me, the main factor that plays against the theory is the fact that presumably he could have made enormously more money in the long run—including for paying off huge debts to the Mob if that is indeed the situation he was in—by winning. Winning meant not only getting the prize money for this match, but playing a possible rematch with King for equal or more money, playing other women in big-money matches (Chris Evert was reportedly already lined up for his next match), and being a big shot indefinitely and hence being in a better position to hustle and make good money in a myriad of ways. Instead, he pretty much dropped back into obscurity after the loss.
Wouldn’t the Mob have preferred he cash in as much as he could and give them whatever he owed them that way and/or maybe take a dive in some much later match when he was a big favorite?
I don’t know. Maybe there was some reason they insisted on cashing in short term by betting big on King and arranging for him to lose this match.
It’s all very interesting stuff. But even though I respect the investigative job ESPN did, and I now think it’s considerably more probable that he took a dive than I used to think, I certainly don’t claim to know for sure one way or the other. I think there are factors pointing both ways.
I’ll mention a few more points about the Riggs-King match that I recall.
One, let’s give Casals a lot of credit for predicting the outcome. Granted, I think it was more a matter of being lucky than good—I’m sure her prediction was a lot more a matter of what she hoped would happen than the result of some sort of objective, highly insightful tennis analysis, but she not only predicted that King would win in straight sets, but pretty much nailed the specific scores. (If memory serves, she didn’t say King would win precisely 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, but said something along the lines that King would win each of the sets 6-3 or 6-4, but even if so, that’s a phenomenally accurate prediction.)
Two, evidently King flat out reneged on the rematch clause. Riggs very much wanted another chance, but from her perspective she was back in the “nothing to gain, everything to lose” position, so she turned him down. He presumably could have sued her (for cash; the law couldn’t compel her to play tennis against him), but for whatever reason chose not to.
Three, maybe because King won in straight sets, my impression is that the match is remembered as being one-sided, but I really don’t think it was. I recall them being reasonably close to evenly matched. Whereas my memory is that Riggs dominated Court even more than the 6-2, 6-1 score would indicate, I think at least the first two sets against King were as close or closer than the 6-4, 6-3 scores would indicate. (He did look more clearly beaten to me in the 6-3 final set.)
So my take on the whole thing is that the mythology of the Riggs-King match is that King beat him badly and thereby successfully destroyed the sexist claim that even a 55 year old man was better than the best woman tennis player (or, more absurdly, the claim that “any man” can beat “any woman”), whereas the reality is that not only did that 55 year old man split with arguably the two best women tennis players in the world, but his win was by a bigger margin than his loss.
But in the end, regardless of the outcome and whether that outcome has been accurately or inaccurately interpreted, really it never should have been as big a deal as it was to so many people.
I think of men and women’s sports like weight classes in boxing (or I suppose certain other sports, but I’ll use boxing since that’s a sport I’m very familiar with).
In boxing, instead of just having one division with one champion, there are various different divisions that each have their own champion. (Actually there are ridiculously many divisions, and there are multiple different semi-official bodies that recognize different champions in even the same division, because boxing is horribly run, but that’s another matter.) For example, for a featherweight championship bout, the fighters must each weigh 126 pounds or less, for lightweights it’s 135 pounds or less, for middleweights it’s 160 pounds or less, etc. For heavyweights there is no weight limit.
Note that the limits are all maximums. So a 120 pound fighter and a 126 pound fighter could fight a featherweight bout, a 140 pound fighter and a 159 pound fighter could fight a middleweight bout, and a 170 pound fighter and a 210 pound fighter could fight a heavyweight bout. (For that matter, a 98 pound fighter and a 400 pound fighter could fight a heavyweight bout.) In that sense it’s asymmetrical. A 125 pound fighter could fight in any of the aforementioned weight classes (though the higher you go, the less realistic it is that he would), whereas a 225 pound fighter could not fight in any class other than the heavyweights.
Gender in sports is kind of the same thing. There are divisions that you have to be a woman to compete in, and there are divisions where you can be either gender but in reality they are almost always all male. And that asymmetry is not inherently objectionable. It’s not unfair that women golfers like Michelle Wie (or whoever else has been speculated about in the past) are eligible to play on the men’s tour if they can hack it while Sergio Garcia isn’t eligible to play on the women’s tour, any more than it is unfair that a 125 pound fighter is eligible to fight as a heavyweight while a 225 pound fighter is not eligible to fight as a featherweight.
It’s a reflection of sexism, and how emotional the issue of gender in sports can be, that people don’t recognize this equivalence between having different weight classes in a sport and having a separate division for women.
In boxing, maybe in the long run the heavyweights have been the most famous or most popular or made the most money or whatever, but there are plenty of exceptions and no one thinks the exceptions prove or disprove anything in particular. I mean, in recent years the non-heavyweight Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been by a wide margin the biggest money fighter in the world. As big a deal as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, and Jack Dempsey were, Willie Pep, Roy Jones Jr. and Roberto Duran weren’t exactly slouches.
I suppose someone might put together a goofy exhibition match between, say, a 60 year old George Foreman, and a 27 year old middleweight champion in his prime, but nobody would think the outcome would somehow establish that the middleweight division should or shouldn’t exist, or that middleweight fighters were or were not credible athletes or should or should not make as much money as heavyweights. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to claim that such a bout would settle whether “any heavyweight” could beat “any middleweight.”
There is a common expression in boxing: “pound for pound.” This is used precisely to make comparisons across divisions. If you ask who was the greatest “pound for pound” boxer of all time, that means relative to their weight class. And many non-heavyweights get consideration for that, with non-heavyweight Sugar Ray Robinson probably being mentioned more often than anyone else, heavyweight or not. Whereas if you were to ask who was the greatest boxer of all time without the “pound for pound” qualification, then certainly the answer would be some heavyweight. The distinction is easily understood and uncontroversial.
Whereas I’ve read vehement arguments about the claim that Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player of all time. The correct response is to first clarify if the claim is meant “relative to gender,” just as people often talk about boxers “pound for pound,” or if it’s meant in an unqualified way.
If it’s meant relative to gender, then you can make a very good case that Williams is indeed the greatest tennis player of all time, and it’s no more objectionable to call her the “greatest” in that sense even though there are plenty of (male) tennis players who could have beaten her, than it is objectionable to propose Sugar Ray Robinson as the greatest boxer who ever lived even though had he squared off with Jack Johnson or Sonny Liston he might well have been killed in the ring.
But instead people get all emotional and angry about it, because what they’re really arguing about is whether women’s sports are “legitimate” or should be taken seriously. The answer is that yes, women athletes are just as legit as Sandy Saddler or Stan Ketchel or Carlos Monzon, but not in the sense that they could—with very rare exceptions—compete on an equal level with men, any more than Saddler, Ketchel, or Monzon belong in the ring with Joe Louis.
But the bottom line is that, objectively, Riggs-King, or Riggs-King and Riggs-Court together, were basically meaningless in settling these issues (though in terms of public perception they were anything but).
One final thing before (finally) moving on to the Battle of the Sexes movie. I find Riggs to be a mostly likable and in some ways fascinating character, but at the same time a troubling one.
I thought his various stunts were mostly funny. I have no reason to doubt what King and numerous others claim about his not really being some male chauvinist pig, but instead being a basically good guy with progressive tendencies on gender who was playing a role in order to hype sporting events (as, say, Muhammad Ali created a certain cocky persona to hype his fights). And I find his larger-than-life huckster persona, his reliance on guile as an athlete, his obsessive love of the spotlight, his kooky wagers, and his tragic struggles with a gambling addiction to be intriguing and thought-provoking.
But what troubles me is that when you pretend to be something, it can have some of the same consequences as really being it. Maybe it was an open secret in some circles that Riggs wasn’t the extreme sexist he pretended to be, but there were a huge number of people outside of those circles that took his shtick literally. That meant there were millions of women who were genuinely insulted by his sexist remarks, and millions of men who were bolstered in their sexist attitudes.
Male chauvinists had a champion in Riggs, regardless of whether he was sincere or insincere in his sexism. And that made a significant—detrimental—difference in a lot of people’s lives.
Maybe Rush Limbaugh is secretly a liberal, and his rants are all an act. So what? I’d still judge him by the filth he spews and not by what might or might not be “in his heart,” because that filth has consequences.
So I want to like Riggs, and to some extent I do like Riggs and see him as an entertaining and sympathetic figure, but there’s a part of me that resists liking him because of the damage he surely did to those who weren’t in on the “joke.”
OK, next I want to make some predictions about Battle of the Sexes. (So I’m still writing this without yet having seen it, and without having seen anything about it except the brief TV commercial for it.) Given my experience of Hollywood’s treatment of “true stories,” what do I expect from this movie?
- Broadly speaking, it’ll be a “feel good” movie about how the forces of good (King) defeated the forces of evil (Riggs). I tend to think, though, that while it will present the cause Riggs is associated with as evil, it will find a way to portray him as not evil as an individual. That’ll be even more “feel good”; the abstract good (feminism, women’s sports, whatever) prevails, but the two main characters we get to know—King and Riggs—are at heart decent people, with not even Riggs really being a villain. That is, I suspect the movie will take the same view of Riggs that King now does, i.e., yes, of course I had to vanquish sexism in that match, but Bobby himself is actually a good guy who ended up being a dear friend of mine.
- While the sexism angle will be key to the movie, it’ll be presented in a bit more of a lighthearted way than if it were about racism. It won’t be as grim and confrontational as, say, a Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, or Jackie Robinson story might be. It’ll be presented somewhat seriously, and it’ll be made clear that the right side won, but there will be at least some element of playful “sitcom hubby gets his comeuppance” to it.
- King won’t be presented as a bull dyke. The very fact that (conventionally attractive and feminine Hollywood actress) Emma Stone is playing her tips me off that they’ll be wary of presenting her as so much of a strident lesbian feminist as to turn off a significant segment of a mainstream movie audience
- I don’t see how they can leave out the Riggs-Court match entirely since it’s so important to the context, but they will give it minimal attention and certainly not suggest that Riggs’s defeat of Court was of equal or greater significance than his loss to King.
- King’s victory in the match against Riggs will be presented as more definitive and one-sided than it was.
- The movie will either deny that Riggs took a dive in the match, or more likely will completely ignore the possibility, as that would unacceptably complicate the “good defeated evil” message.
As I write the remainder of this piece, I have now seen Battle of the Sexes. But for now I’m going to remain “blind” in one remaining respect: I’m going to give my reaction to the movie, including in relation to what I wrote before seeing it, but I’m not yet going to read anything further about it, including what it did and didn’t fictionalize. Then finally, at the end, after I have indeed Googled and satisfied my curiosity on certain points, I’ll make some comments concerning how accurate the movie is or isn’t.
In some respects I did quite well in anticipating how Battle of the Sexes would present its subject matter and in some respects I was surprised.
One thing I would say right off the bat that I didn’t anticipate, or didn’t really consider one way or the other, is that Battle of the Sexes is not roughly equally the story of Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, but is more like 30% Riggs and 70% King.
I don’t mean that just in the sense of who is or isn’t presented as a sympathetic character, but of how much screen time they each get, and who is the central character. Battle of the Sexes is the story of King, and some of her women tennis player allies, fighting against sexism in tennis, with the Riggs-King match being an important event in that struggle. But that context is what’s emphasized; it’s really about King’s role as a leader in that overall struggle, including but not limited to her participation in this match.
Battle of the Sexes could have been titled The Billie Jean King Story. Riggs is a supporting player in that story, albeit a significant one.
And that may be a weakness of the movie. On a purely human, individual, level, King’s story is an interesting and in some ways important one, but to me at least, Riggs’s story is even more fascinating. I found myself wanting to better understand Riggs and his life as I watched the movie.
What there is on Riggs is mostly quite good; there just isn’t enough of it. He is depicted as a charismatic man who means well, but who just has never been able to figure out the whole “responsible husband and father” thing. He’s selfish, but more in an overgrown child way than a malicious way. He’s the kind of guy who can be a lot of fun to have in your life at a superficial level, but whom you wouldn’t want to have to rely on in a deeper way.
There’s an implication that his gambling problem is part of why his closest personal relationships are not as successful as they could be, but I didn’t find that very effective. They show him winning, and trying to hide it from his wife since clearly she doesn’t want him gambling at all, and they show him standing up and giving a dramatic speech to his Gamblers Anonymous group, telling them that their problem is not gambling but gambling without an edge.
Neither of those really conveys how devastating compulsive gambling can be. We can infer from the fact that he anticipates that his wife will be upset if she catches him gambling that his gambling has been a big problem in their relationship, but we don’t actually see that; we just see him winning. As far as his impassioned statement at the meeting, the truth is he’s right. The problem is that he himself—in real life, but again we don’t see it in the movie—did not only bet with an edge, but often bet in a compulsive, out of control way when he most certainly did not have an edge.
As I expected, the film does not address the possibility that Riggs threw the match with King.
Also as I expected, there is a lightness to the movie. Sarah Silverman (as some kind of personal assistant/agent/manager of King’s who then becomes some kind of organizer/promoter/commissioner of the women’s tennis tour that King and some of her fellow players form) gives an over-the-top performance for comic relief, and there are two male fashion designers or something who tag along on the tour and are depicted as a couple of flamboyant queens, again for comic relief.
Not that the film doesn’t deal with serious issues, but there’s a lack of intensity to how it does so. From compulsive gambling to blatant sexism to homophobia, it either leaves a lot of the damage and pain implied, or it treats them as the sorts of things that can be entertainingly defeated by likable, plucky underdogs.
I had assumed that the movie would be very much about the issue of sexism, and in a sense it is, but maybe not the way I anticipated. It keeps its focus on the individuals at the center of the story—primarily King—and mostly leaves you to infer what was going on in society that shaped, and was shaped by, these events. On reflection, maybe that shouldn’t have surprised me. It’s not a documentary after all, so naturally it focuses on the main characters and the main story rather than providing a lot of explanation of what else was going on in society.
But in another sense it does place the Riggs-King match in a broader context. As I noted, the match is presented as just one event in an ongoing struggle by King and the women tennis players allied with her to stand up to the male-dominated tennis establishment. In fact, their rebellious establishment of their own women’s tennis tour is presented as, if anything, a more important development in that struggle.
One quick point about that. Battle of the Sexes presents retired tennis great Jack Kramer (I’m not sure what position he held in 1973, but evidently he determined such things as how purse money would be distributed at tennis tournaments) as a blatant sexist who unjustly paid the women players less than the men.
Maybe he was indeed such a blatant sexist, maybe even to the nearly cartoon villain extent depicted in the movie, but I’m not convinced that “justice” requires equal purses for men and women, though the movie treats that as self-evident.
As a matter of pure capitalism, people should be paid what the market requires. If you can only get the top men to play in your tournament if you pay them x, and you can only get the top women to play in your tournament if you pay them y, there’s no reason to think x will always equal y.
Again, think of it like weight classes in boxing. There have been eras where heavyweights commanded bigger purses than any other weight class, and periods where that was not the case, including recently when, as I mentioned above, the non-heavyweight Floyd Mayweather Jr. has made far more money than any heavyweight of his era. In terms of capitalism, there isn’t anything unjust about such inequality. Fighters of different weight classes don’t “deserve” equal pay.
If we’re talking about kids or amateurs, then I think the case for equality is stronger. If male sports in high school or college generate more revenue than female sports, it doesn’t follow that the amount spent on them should be proportionate to that. The purpose of school athletics isn’t to make a profit, but to allow students of either gender an opportunity to participate. But for professional sports, there’s no prima facie requirement of justice that WNBA salaries equal NBA salaries, for instance.
From the fact that King and her cohorts go off and form their own tennis tour, you could say that they are showing that Kramer is mistaken in his beliefs about what the market requires him to pay women. That’s true, behaviorally. But rhetorically it’s couched in moral terms, and that’s what I don’t find convincing. They aren’t merely saying, “The market will pay us more for our labor than you’re offering, and we’re going to prove it”; they’re saying, “You’re treating us unjustly by offering only what you’re offering.”
(By the way, speaking of moral issues in connection with tennis of that era, whatever moral high ground these women thought they occupied in defying the sexist Kramer and his ilk, they surely relinquished it by accepting as the sponsor of their tour the murderous Virginia Slims cancer peddlers.)
Still on the topic of the social issues addressed by the movie, I did not anticipate that the film would address—again through King’s story—homophobia almost as much as sexism.
That’s not to say I was wrong in predicting that the movie wouldn’t depict King as very dykey looking and acting—which she pretty much was in real life. But it goes into the gay issue in general more than I expected.
That would have surprised me a lot less if the title and the description of the movie had made it clear this was the story of King and of this particular era of women’s tennis, rather than the story of the Riggs-King match specifically, because the match is obviously much more a sexism thing than a gay thing, whereas both are plenty relevant to a biography of King.
King is depicted—and I’m guessing this is inaccurate, but we’ll see when I read up on the movie more later—as a total neophyte to lesbianism at this time of her life. A happily married woman, she unexpectedly finds herself drawn to a (female) hairdresser who is connected to the new women’s tennis tour. Soon they are rooming together on the road, engaged in a passionate relationship.
Not only am I skeptical that this is all a revelation to King (“Wow, what do you know? I’m gay!”), but I’m also skeptical of the way the movie presents it as something unusual and potentially scandalous. The potentially scandalous part, yeah—I’m sure it would be bad public relations in the 1970s for the new women’s tennis tour to be associated with homosexuality—but I’ve always assumed it was an open secret that women’s sports has a highly disproportionate number of lesbians.
An additional reason, by the way, to guess that there’s some fictionalizing going on here is that at the end of the movie there is an update on what happened with most of the main characters, but the hairdresser—who has as much screen time as anyone in the film other than King and Riggs themselves—is not mentioned. So I suspect if she wasn’t made up entirely, she—and this relationship—were at least changed quite a bit from real life.
One pleasant surprise about the film is that the Riggs-Court match isn’t given short shrift at all.
Furthermore, the matches themselves are presented fairly accurately—Riggs defeated Court in a very one-sided match, and King defeated Riggs in a somewhat more closely contested match. I also was impressed how real the tennis action looked, which is not at all typical of sports movies. (Is tennis just easier to fake than something like boxing in that respect?)
Though on the other hand, I don’t think it quite captured some of the nuance that I remember about those matches and Riggs’s style, namely that Riggs was very much a finesse player with an entertaining variety of pinpoint accurate lobs and drop shots and such, and that Riggs chose not to contest many points in the first couple sets against King that would have required him to expend a lot of energy.
Overall, Battle of the Sexes is certainly the kind of feel-good mainstream Hollywood movie I expected, though the message of the movie isn’t—as I would have guessed—“King and the forces of good defeated Riggs and the forces of evil so that women’s equality could reign throughout the land,” but instead “King and the forces of good defeated Kramer and the forces of evil by setting up a rival tennis tour and sustaining it through the Bobby Riggs sideshow and other obstacles so that women’s equality could reign throughout the land and possibly gay equality eventually could too.”
As far as accuracy, my assessment now—before reading about the matter further—is that in certain respects it is equally or more accurate than I expected (e.g., in not downplaying the Riggs-Court match), while in other respects it fictionalizes and oversimplifies the story at least as much as mainstream movies about real people and real events typically do (e.g., in King’s gay awakening at the advanced age of 29).
But what of the movie as a whole? Is Battle of the Sexes not only a “feel-good movie,” but a “good movie”?
It’s decent. I’d probably put it around the middle of the pack of movies I’ve seen. It held my interest the whole way. The acting is fine, the dialogue is crisp, and things move along at a nice pace. I thought Riggs’s story was especially compelling (to the point that, as I mentioned, I wish a greater portion of the film had been devoted to it). I’m not going to rate it too highly though, because it really is a little too oversimplified, a little too manipulative in telling you who and what to root for for my tastes.
OK, finally, what did I learn in my further research after the fact into the accuracy of the movie?
Well, I didn’t spend a huge amount of time researching, but the sources I read seemed to grade the movie as above average in terms of accuracy (relative to the Hollywood norm). The main inaccuracies cited had to do with the timeline of various events; what happened over the course of many years in the politics of women’s tennis is presented as if it all happened much closer to the time of the Riggs-King match.
Also, one article mentioned that in real life the rebel tour King and the other women players set up for themselves later merged with the existing Virginia Slims tour, whereas the impression I got from the movie is that Virginia Slims sponsored their rebel tour and that that’s what gave them enough money to get it off the ground in the first place.
As far as King’s lesbianism, I didn’t find much pro or con as far as whether the movie was accurate in depicting her discovering her attraction to women at age 29 with the hairdresser, though eventually I did find reference to an interview wherein King stated that she first became aware of being sexually attracted to women in 1968, which would have been several years earlier.
The hairdresser herself was indeed a real person, though many details about her and the relationship were changed. The movie’s failure to provide an update about that character at the end, though, was probably less related to its fictionalizing her in certain respects, and more related to the fact that hers is truly a sad and ugly story that wouldn’t have fit with the movie’s theme.
King’s relationship with the woman (Marilyn Barnett) who more or less corresponds to the hairdresser in the movie lasted for about ten years. At the end, they had a very acrimonious break-up. Barnett sued for support, arguing that in effect they had been spouses and so their breaking up should legally be treated like a divorce. The case brought King unwillingly out of the closet, which devastated her emotionally and financially (she lost all her endorsement money), and resulted in her having to extend her career beyond when she had planned to retire in order to earn more money. Barnett lost the case, and attempted suicide, failing but coming close enough to put herself in a wheelchair for life.
So, yeah, not exactly feel-good stuff, so I’m not surprised a feel-good movie didn’t go there.
Anyway, Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining film. I suppose I’d narrowly give it a thumbs up. Truth be told, though, I’d probably prefer a hyper-accurate documentary about Riggs and King, especially one that went into detail about the evidence pro and con that Riggs threw their match.