The battle for equality in sport isn’t a debate about which sex is better but it’s more a fight to get women’s sports receiving the same respect and attention as their male counterparts, and thus receiving equal pay for reaching the top of their respective sports. Granted, sometimes this simply isn’t possible especially when it comes to football where the attendance figures, and viewing figures, of women’s football are too small to sustain the wages that the men get but tennis is different altogether because both men and women’s single events sell out equally. Nowadays the tournament prizes are the same regardless of gender but in the 1970s this was not the case and this had to be changed.
This is exactly what Bille Jean King (Emma Stone) fought valiantly for in the 1970s because if women were clearly shown to be as much of a draw as the men, why shouldn’t they be privy the same winnings as the men? It was a difficult task, tennis in the 1970s of was full of men who were part of old boys club, and draped their arm over a highly respected female co-commentator in a creepy, leering manner. Bille Jean King desired a world where women were treated equally so when Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) condescendingly offered to play her in a one-off match, she initially refused fearing mockery if she were to lose. However, when Margret Court agreed to play Riggs, and eventually lost to him, making a mockery of women’ tennis in the process, King was determined to beat him.
Potential spoilers ahead but it’s always strange how something can be so incredibly tense even though you know the end result. This is the case with the final scenes, which show Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs, because there was a lot riding on this game as losing to Bobby Riggs would, in King’s words, “set women’s tennis back fifty years”. It’s the power of good filmmaking, and sport, that the film’s final scenes are almost unbearably tense, despite the end result being common knowledge, because it’s very easy to find yourself supporting one person in particular.
Emma Stone is terrific as the legendary Billie Jean King, showing King’s steely resolve as well as a deep emotional core Stone makes for a compelling female lead. On the other side of the court is Steve Carell whose successful in making Bobby Riggs showmanship guiltily enjoyable yet infuriating and poignant in equal measure (if there’s one issue with the film it’s that it isn’t clear whether Riggs was a genuine sexist or just putting on a show). Whilst the famous tennis match does form the backbone of the story, the film’s main emotional impact stems from the relationship between Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and King which is touchingly and intimately written.
The film works as a lesbian love story and a historic tale of sexism ingrained into sport and society without leaving one aspect of the story feeling underdeveloped. The pitch perfect performances and triumphant story serve up a film which is ace viewing.