The 1973 tennis match between 55-year-old former champion Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old peak-of-her-career Billie Jean King is one of those odd little footnote-to-pop-culture-history anecdotes which tend to get forgotten until someone makes a film about it … though it’s only when looking up the ‘movie connections’ feature on the IMDb that I noticed Holly Hunter and Ron Silver played the leads in a 2001 TV movie with the spoil-the-ending title of When Billie Beat Bobby. This is a feelgood nostalgia for a struggle with a good outcome – its bad guys are obvious clown Riggs (Steve Carrell), who probably doesn’t even mean all the stuff he says about women being inferior (the hustler talks about ‘putting the show back into chauvinism’), and smoother country crub Lawn Tennis Association boss Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who really but quietly believes all the guff Riggs gives out and is shown to feel that women’s tennis is a sideshow and the men’s game is all that matters.
There’s a lot of sisterly comedy on the women’s tennis circuit tour, courtesy of mama hen Gladys (Sarah Silverman) – who manages to get sponsorship from Virginia Slims, cuing some knowing jokes in the Mad Men manner but no anger about the cynicism of cigarette companies hiding behind athletes. Also fit in is a sexual awakening strand as Billie Jean (Emma Stone), married to permastyled nice guy Larry (Austin Stowell), begins her first lesbian affair, with a cute hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Simon Beaufoy, screenwriter of The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, has a knack for tidying up troublesome real life: the very polite, understanding romantic triangle features a lot of soulful lingering in anonymous hotel corridors – and no foreshadowing of the later fallout of the affair, in which (surprisingly enough for it to have made for interesting drama) Billie Jean remained on good terms with Larry but got into a bitter, life-derailing court battle with Marilyn over palimony.
Oddly, the film is rather more credible with broader business about Bobby’s on-off marriage to the monied Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and his relationship with a wary but loving grown son (Eric Christian Olsen). Bobby is the kind of guy who talks through his gambling issues with a shrink while playing blackjack (a nice feint has him seeming to be talking about his marriage but actually discussing the upcoming match) and tells a roomful of gambling addicts that their problem is not that they’re gamblers but they’re losers. The film rather skips over the preliminary bout, in which Riggs easily beat women’s champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who was temporarily ascendant over King – though it seems that he prevailed then because beneath the antics he was still a cunning, skilled player, and had honed his abilities in a retirement gig doing ridiculous stunt matches (playing with leashed dogs or in silly costumes) for big prizes (he wins a Rolls Royce, and is almost reduced to living in it). Indeed, this has time for only the most elementary tennis tactics stuff – Billie Jean pressing her age advantage by running the older man, who has taken $20,000 to play while wearing a bulky promotional jacket pushing a lollipop brand, all over the court and wearing him down.
In King’s corner are a nice gay designer (Alan Cumming), a sassy gal pal commentator (Natalie Morales) and a gaggle of likeable sister players. None of the other women on the circuit are shown to resent her star status or display much interest in beating her – an omission which oddly tends to support dinosaur Jack Kramer’s view of the women’s game as less serious (especially in a film season that includes Borg McEnroe). Riggs makes do with a sinister doctor feelgood (Fred Armisen), who nevertheless has flashes of real concern for the guy he has stuffed with vitamin supplements and pep pills. Directed by the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who deliver an entertaining fable (‘the libber and the lobber’) which might cheer embattled liberals in the current American political climate. The film’s confidence about progressive ideals feel glib and sugary when those values are under a sustained assault, and the nightmare version of showvinism has replaced basically sweet, harmless blowhards like Riggs (who lets a few nastinesses slip – as when he claims that by beating Court he is the ladies’ champion) with pussy-grabbing monsters of entitlement who self-identify as winners in battles of life.