Bewildered Old Man Stumbles (Not Even All That Old)

Battle of the Sexes a film by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.  With Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Elizabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman.  ****1/2

The only tennis game I ever watched in its entirety was the Battle of the Sexes match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973.  In those days when all the young women I knew were feminists, when my wife and I subscribed to and avidly read Ms. magazine, that match was a major feminist event.  I also car-pooled to work with two women who were serious tennis players.  The match was required viewing, like Muhammed Ali prizefight, which happened on a regular basis in those days.

I didn’t know beans about tennis, but I knew Bobby Riggs was a hustler, and hustlers have a way of making bets they know they will win.  The bet in this case was a monster, winner take all for $100,000, at a time when the winner of a women’s tournament earned a small fraction of that.  He had won a smaller bet that led up to this one, beating Margaret Court for $35,000, making the match into a spectacle and somehow getting into her head, though at the time she was ranked number one.

Against King, though he made it into even more of a spectacle, and she went along with a lot of it, he never got to her.  A 55 year old showman was playing a focused 29 year old athlete, and my memory—though apparently there were some glitches along the way—was that she took him apart.  I didn’t realize how important it was to women until the next day, when my friends in the car spent 20 minutes recapping the match in detail (smoking cigarettes the whole time.  My God, those were the days).

I was somewhat surprised, then, when a movie about this event began, and I found myself watching a captivating love story.  Though married to a sweet and understanding husband, Billie Jean (Emma Stone) found herself falling for a hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  The scene where they fall for each other is subtle and beautifully done, and the moment when they finally make their way back to Billie Jean’s motel room is a major thrill.  It’s not an Oh-my-God-I’m-a-lesbian moment; it’s an an I-am-falling-in-love moment.  In 1973, when the Virginia Slims Women’s Tour was populated by a bunch of “girls,” some of whom were “single”—“Did you hear that, guys?” a radio interviewer says—this could have been a disastrous complication.

It is while they’re getting it on in the motel room that Billie Jean gets her first call from Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) proposing a match.  Riggs was a former men’s champ married to a wealthy woman (Elizabeth Shue) and stuck in an office job he hated.  We called him a hustler (setting up all kinds of matches with goofball handicaps), but apparently he was an addict, went to Gamblers Anonymous once a week and spent the rest of the week making bets (people can’t smell gambling on your breath).  She was a serious athlete, he a showman on a par with P.T. Barnum or Gorgeous George.  She turned him down without a thought.

This is a movie that turned out to be much more complicated and interesting than its supposed subject, and much better than the trailer—which I saw several times—would have suggested.  The real villain among the men was not Riggs, a harmless old fart who in a way was doing a service to women’s tennis, but Jack Kramer, a famous former player and tennis executive who believed the women’s game was inferior and not worth as much money (though it drew similar crowds to the men’s).  He would have screwed these “girls” any way he could.  The most satisfying confrontations in the movie were those between Billie Jean and Kramer, including one that nearly canceled the Battle of the Sexes before it began.

One moment in the trailer that really misled me was a scene when Billie Jean and Marilyn are in bed, and Billie Jean says she wanted to be the best so she could change things.  (Oh come on, I thought, when I saw that moment in the trailer.)  She was actually talking about a time when she hadn’t been allowed to be in a girls’ tennis photo because her family couldn’t afford a tennis dress for her—her mother had sewed some shorts—and she vowed at that moment to be the best so she could break through such barriers.  She eventually decided she had to take the match against Riggs because Court had lost and made the women’s game look bad.

I had never seen a woman athlete quite like Billie Jean in 1973 (the only comparable one I can think of is Wilma Rudolph in 1960, but she was so dominant, so much a force of nature, that her performance seemed effortless).  When Riggs started the match still wearing his warm-up jacket (because it had the name of his sponsor on it), and he was serving to a woman who was crouched and facing him with the look of a killer, you thought, my God, this isn’t even going to be close.  She ran him all over the court and made him look like the bewildered old man he was.  I kept thinking as I watched the re-enactment that someone like Serena Williams would have annihilated him.

I felt a real moment of sympathy for Riggs as he walked off the court in the midst of all the celebrating for his opponent; this man who had been all bluster was now nothing, like a deflated toy.  He wasn’t really a male chauvinist pig (as his wife pointed out to him, he’d been living off her for years), just a blowhard at the country club trying to get people’s attention.  I felt as if I knew that guy.  The life of a hustler depends on slowly upping the ante until he wins the match nobody thought he had a chance in.  This time he was the one who got hustled.  By a woman.