Billie Jean King is an icon of tennis, the women’s rights movement and the LGBT rights movement. This film did so poorly at the box office that I assumed it hadn’t done her justice – it was only on at the pictures very briefly, which is why I missed it – but it turned out to be superb. Very impressed. I’d love to know what Margaret Court, about whom there’ll no doubt, and with good cause, be another row come January, thought about being cast as the villain of the piece. Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, just came across as a bit of a prat.
Sports films can be awkward. Nobody particularly wants to see actors and actresses and their body doubles pretending to play a tennis match. If I want to watch tennis (which I do, pretty much all the time!), I’ll watch a proper match involving professional players. But this wasn’t really a sports film, or a film just about the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs: it was a film about people standing up for something they believed in.
The issue of equal prize money between men and women in tennis is still ongoing. It was only in 2007 that Wimbledon and the French Open began awarding equal prize money across the board, and the question still comes up umpteen times a year. Back in 1970, a tournament was organised in which female players were offered only one-eighth of the prize money being offered to male players.
Billie Jean King and eight other women players, championed by publisher and former player Gladys Heldman – the Heldman character in the film also made a point about the anti-Semitism prevalent in some American sports clubs at that time – set up their own tour, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes. I’m so ancient that I can still remember the days of Virginia Slims tournaments (I mean in the late ’80s and ’90s, not the ’70s!)! It eventually became what we now know as the WTA Tour. They were banned from tournaments organised by the USLTA (now the USTA), and a lot of women’s events outside the US were also dropped. However, they stuck to their guns, and formed the Women’s Tennis Association, and their position gradually improved.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a retired player in his mid-’50s, had got his life in a mess because of gambling. Whilst his gambling addiction wasn’t the main focus of the film, it did raise the important issue of the number of professional sports players who struggle to cope with retirement, and fall into gambling or alcoholism or other addictions. He came up with the idea of a match against a top female player, but, although he made a lot of remarks about women belonging in the kitchen and so on, it was clear that he didn’t really mean it, and that he was desperate for money and playing up the image of himself as a male chauvinist pig because he knew it’d gain publicity. It’s known that he and Billie Jean King kept in touch after their match, and remained friends until his death.
Margaret Court, on the other hand, was depicted as an absolute bitch. I don’t honestly think that’s accurate: there’s never been any suggestion that there was bad feeling between her and Billie Jean King when they were playing. Billie Jean King had a husband at the time, but had begun a relationship with … I thought Marilyn Barnett was her secretary, but she was portrayed in this as her hairdresser. Anyway, they began a relationship, which went on for around a decade. Eventually it all ended very unpleasantly, with Barnett revealing the relationship publicly and suing her for palimony, but that was years after the period covered by the film. The way it was shown in the film was that Margaret Court had realised about the relationship, and she was shown making homophobic remarks and saying that she hoped Billie Jean’s personal life would fall apart and cause her tennis to do likewise.
I’ve never heard anything to suggest that that actually happened. However, in recent years, Margaret Court has been very outspoken against LGBT rights, and that’s led to calls for the Margaret Court Arena, the second court at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, to be renamed. Several players, including Andy Murray, have spoken of the possibility of boycotting the court, or even the whole event. Some of her comments, especially about transgender children, are just beyond appalling, and really have disgusted players, fans and everyone else. She didn’t attend the Australian Open last year, knowing that she wouldn’t be welcome. So it wouldn’t surprise me if she had made comments like that, but I’ve never heard it suggested that she did.
She, then the world number one, played a “battle of the sexes” match against Bobby Riggs, and he absolutely routed her. It was hinted in the film that maybe she lost deliberately. Again, I’m not sure that that’s ever been suggested. There have been suggestions that Bobby Riggs lost his match against Billie Jean King deliberately, which wasn’t suggested in the film; but I don’t think that’s true either.
Teddy Tinling, the British dress designer and former player, who famously upset the powers that were at Wimbledon by designing lace pants for “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran in 1949, and designed Billie Jean’s match for her match against Riggs, was, by contrast, shown as being absolutely lovely – incredibly supportive of all the women players and, openly gay himself, supportive of Billie Jean in her personal life too. The film didn’t show too much about her family, but she’s spoken openly about how she was frightened of coming out because of the attitude of her very conservative and religious family. It did show her being warned that the women’s tour could suffer badly if sponsorship were to be withdrawn by businesses with homophobic attitudes – and, when her relationship with Marilyn Barnett was made public, she did indeed lose millions of dollars in endorsements.
After defeating Margaret Court, Bobby Riggs challenged any other female player to play him. Billie Jean King accepted. He might have been doing it for the publicity and the money, and she might have felt that it was all pretty stupid, but, as she’s said, if she’d lost, live on prime time TV, to a retired player 26 years older than her, the reputation of women’s tennis and the morale of all the female players would have been badly damaged. The film made the match look a lot more serious than it was in real life – there was a load of silly OTT pre-match stuff in real life, dressing up and so on – but, even in real life, it was a big thing, and attracted a huge amount of attention.
Billie Jean won the match, 6-4 6-3 6-3. How much of an effect it actually had on women’s tennis, and on women’s sport and indeed feminism in general, is a moot point, but she’d certainly never have heard the end of it had she lost. Maybe it was a big moment. It’d be nice to think so.
However much effect that match did or didn’t have, Billie Jean King is a heroine, both as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and as someone who’s fought for equal rights. It’s a great shame that this film didn’t do better at the box office, because it really is worth seeing – not just by tennis fans, but by everyone.