Based on the true story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. While King comes to terms with her sexuality, Riggs comes to terms with the changing times and truths about himself.
I’m not one for sports movies. Honestly, when someone starts talking to me about their favorite sports team my eyes start to glaze over and my mind begins to wander. It’s just not my thing, and that’s fine; everybody has something that piques his or her interest. I certainly don’t expect everybody to have an interest in 1960’s Bergman films or books by Dostoyevsky. Though I hadn’t a ton of interest in the actual story behind this film, I do like both the leads. Steve Carell (“Beautiful Boy”) has consistently surprised me in his more dramatic rolls; “Foxcatcher”, for which Carell earned an Oscar nomination, was slow and brooding, and his portrayal of a sociopathic wrestling coach was chilling, and he was just as good in “The Big Short”. I’ve loved Emma Stone (“The Favourite”) since the moment I saw her in “Superbad”, and I’ve actually followed her career rather closely… I actually like Stone so much that I went out of my way to see “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” just because she was in that… so, yeah, take that as you will. Anyways, my admiration of the actors was not enough to actually draw me to the theater to see this flick, but once it arrived on streaming I had no issue sitting down to give a go. To my delight, I quite enjoyed this film.
More Than Sportsball
The biggest hurdle I always face with most sports is my total ambivalence towards what team wins. Sorry. I know that a lot of people will say that fighting tooth and nail for victory on the field can be one of the most intense things you can depict on screen, but I wholeheartedly disagree. If you loose a game, you loose a game. Who cares? Get over it. There are a few films that I think really have captured my attention and made me cheer for the teams, but most of the time the reason had nothing to do with the sports, it had to do with the players and their stories. I thought Miracle was great, and of course everybody loves “Remember the Titans”. But movies like “The Blind Side”, “The Rookie”, “42”, “We Are Marshall”, “Glory Road”, and “Invincible” do absolutely nothing for me. Again, sorry if you like sports, this is just my opinion.
The reason this film stands out beyond films like “Invincible” and “The Rookie” is because this film does a better job of depicting a change in America. The tennis game, while the center of the whole story, also becomes a metaphor for the opposing sides of an argument or a way of life. The tennis game becomes a battle of the sexes, quite literally. The world in 1973 was much different from the world that Bobby Riggs grew up in, and he was a relic of an older time. His ways are chauvinistic, and he doesn’t see a problem with the way he’s living, but many others do. His abrasive personality rubs everyone wrong (even his wife), but he still refuses to change because he believes he is in the right. This film feels very timely, having come out around the same time that the #MeToo movement started. It says a lot about men in positions of power making uninformed, unintelligent statements without any thoughts to what repercussions might arise because of their beliefs (ahem).
At the same time that we’re given a portrait of how damaging outdated belief can be, we’re shown a way of life that in 1973 was just starting to become acceptable. King is a closeted lesbian, but at the beginning of the film she’s married to Larry Riggs (Lewis Pullman, “Bad Times at the El Royal”). King’s sexual awakening is sparked by Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, “Mandy”) after King visits her in a hair salon. The two flirt on and off until they plunge headlong into an affair. The directors handle the affair rather effortlessly, and they encourage the viewer to root for the two women to be together. The fact that King is still married seems to be brushed under the rug during the whole film, and even when Larry shows up and confronts Marilyn, his feelings about everything seem secondary to what the girls feel. I have no problem with King and Barnett being together, but I wish they‘d addressed the infidelity a bit more. That wasn’t what the film was aiming to be about, so I understand why they didn’t, but it gave a certain amount of coldness to King’s character, when she was clearly the one we were supposed to root for.
Lands Between the Lines (Mostly)
I’m always interested to see the accuracy of films claiming to be based on a true story, so during some of the more obscure scenes of this film, I found myself checking the Internet to validate what was taking place. I was actually really impressed by the accuracy of this movie, particularly in some of the costuming for Steve Carrel. Riggs was a self-proclaimed chauvinist, and he went out of his way to make this known. He dressed up in woman’s clothing to make fun of them, he wore shirts declaring his chauvinism; he was just all around a bit of a schmuck. I thought perhaps that they might have played this up during the movie, but as you can see from the pictures to the right, they were very accurate with their depiction. In fact, the lead up to the tennis match and the way the match itself played out was also very accurate to history. The only thing I could really find inaccurate about the movie was the glossy-eyed approach to King and Barnett’s relationship. In the movie, their relationship is portrayed as wholly a good thing, but in reality, I guess Barnett and King’s relationship ended in a lawsuit.
This is a good sports movie, and it’s rare that I say that. Though neither character is perfect, we end up caring about both of them. We want Riggs to change, to go back to his wife and learn from his mistakes; Riggs has a big mouth, but he’s still a somewhat likeable guy when he isn’t making fun of people or being a jerk. Above Riggs, though, we’re rooting for King; we’re excited that she’s finally coming to terms with her sexuality and all the changes that come with that; she’s a flawed character, but she’s got a great heart. I absolutely recommend this film, and that’s coming from a guy who hates sports movies.
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