The match that made history: “Battle of the Sexes”

BLU-RAY REVIEW

Emma Stone as Bille Jean King and Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs. (Fox Searchlight)

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES”


Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD copy; 2017; PG-13 for sexual content and partial nudity; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu


Best extra: “Billie Jean King: In Her Own Words” interview


TO VIEWERS under the age of 50, especially tennis fans, the name Billie Jean King is virtually household. A past tennis champion, she is still very present at major tournaments, such as the U.S. Open, which is held at a venue named in her honor.


But, until now, those viewers may not have heard of the 1973 exhibition match that pitted a 29-year-old King against Bobby Riggs, a one-time champ and clownish blowhard, who was 55 at the time. Dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes,” that match provides the climax of this film written by Simon Beaufoy and co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”).


The film, starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs, is a timely and entertaining view of the trajectory of King’s leading role in the rise of women’s tennis and female empowerment. When big-time tournament promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) refused to raise the prize money for women to even get close to that of the men, Tennis World magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) organized nine top women players (including King) to form the breakaway Virginia Slims tour, and were subsequently blacklisted by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association.


British actress Andrea Riseborough stars as Billie Jean's hairdresser and love interest.

A running subplot in the film deals with the then-married King’s revelations in her personal life when she becomes involved with a woman hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and risks jeopardizing her career with the brief affair. With a game and excellent cast, including Elizabeth Shue, Fred Armisen, and Alan Cumming, paired with archival appearances by the likes of Howard Cosell, Howard K. Smith, Rosie Grier and Chris Evert, “Battle of the Sexes” always entertains, while retaining a glossy Hollywood look.


It captures the zeitgeist of the 1970s, its look, rampantly sexist attitudes, and the totally carnival atmosphere of the King-Riggs match, which King unsurprisingly and decisively, won. The rest – at least for women’s professional tennis – is history. The sexism? We may not be there yet, but to paraphrase Virginia Slims’ slogan, we’ve come a long way.


Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment offers this Blu-ray, which looks quite good, and exhibits the slightly grainy look desired by the production team, as “Battle of the Sexes” was shot on 35mm film stock. The softness of the imagery doesn’t keep details from appearing sharp, while skin tones are true, and the prevalent primary colors of the era remain lively. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is also very good, with effects well-modulated and dialogue consistently clear.


Sarah Silverman as Tennis World magazine founder Gladys Heldman.

Extras include some silent raw footage of the scene in which Billie Jean and “Sugar Daddy” Riggs enter and the Houston Astrodome for the match; a making-of documentary, and several photo slideshow-type galleries.

The featurette with King who, with her life partner Ilana Kloss, are listed as consultants for the film, giving her perspective on the events, is especially compelling. King refers to 1973 as a sort of “perfect storm” for what took place. Tracing the course of women’s tennis, King notes that before 1968, “We were amateurs; we made $14 a day.” Her husband, Larry, had warned King that if the women players went pro, the men “would squeeze them out.” Larry was a lawyer, and he wrote the by-laws for the Virginia Slims tour. The women knew the risks they were taking, such as not playing in major tournaments again.


The commitment of those nine women with their one-dollar contract, recalls King, “changed everything for all time.” About Riggs, King says, “He was one of my heroes,” who used to show up at her tournaments. Regarding Riggs’ “Mother’s Day massacre” of Margaret Court (before he played King), King says that Court’s “biggest mistake” that day was curtseying to Riggs before the match started. For King, that was a sign of subservience that set a defeatist tone.


When she won her match with Riggs, she was struck by what he said after he leapt over the net: “I really underestimated you!” That had especially poignant meaning for King, whose father had cautioned her to never underestimate an opponent. She concludes, “My whole life’s been about inclusion … making things better.” She feels that what happened in the ‘70s was “crossing a line in the sand. … We still have the same issues,” she adds, “but you have to start someplace!”


- Peggy Earle


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