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BATTLE OF THE SEXES sketches in the background to what is still the most-watched tennis match of all time - the 1973 clash between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Staged at the Houston Astrodome, it was prompted by Riggs' boasts that he could beat any of the leading female tennis players of the time, and thereby prove that men were 'naturally' superior to women. The documentary includes extensive footage of Riggs' interviews before the match took place; his views on women now seem incongruously out of date. By contrast Billie Jean King maintained her dignity, by refusing to become involved in the verbal debates either before or after the match. James Erskine's film makes some inflated claims - that the match provided inspiration for the feminist movement of the early Seventies - but covers far stronger ground in its analysis of the revolution in women's tennis taking place at that time. We have to admire King and her fellow-players for setting up a rebel tennis tour, in opposition to the US Tennis Association, as they demanded equal pay with their male counterparts. Despite numerous setbacks, their initiative proved so successful that it led to the formation of the WTA (Women's Tennis Association) in 1973. King herself comes across as both dedicated yet relentless - for her, the Riggs match was not just about vanquishing a buffoon-like male, but rather an opportunity to prove the strength of women's tennis as a whole. On the other hand, we feel sorry for her fellow-tennis player Margaret Court, who was patently not ready for the publicity ballyhoo surrounding her clash with Riggs, and lost her match badly. BATTLE OF THE SEXES is certainly an historical document, but one can't help feeling that, while Riggs' views are not overtly expressed these days in the media, there are plenty of men who share his opinions, despite four decades of feminist reform.
When I saw this documentary, I expected a story leading up to the famous tennis match (still the most watched tennis match) between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and that certainly happened. What I was not expecting was that this film was so thoroughly researched and put together. A very informative selection of actual interviews and voiceovers led us through the years leading up to "the match" and then afterwards right up till now. There are even short excerpts of other material which were very clever. I especially liked the little animation - watch out for it. In Melbourne (Australia) this was released onto just one screen, but it deserves more. The writers certainly had an obvious agenda, but that did not detract from the viewing experience for me. A very good addition to our stock of historical feature length documentaries.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a sports doc that is about a match of extreme triviality in
sporting terms but of huge significance in so many others. Aging tennis
star Bobby Riggs had being going around spouting off a ridiculous
amount of sexist drivel, including the fact that he, even at his
advanced age, would be able to defeat the top women's tennis stars of
the day. He managed to convince top player Margaret Court into playing
him but the very different pressure involved in this game left Court
crumbling and Riggs easily won. The film-makers managed to unearth
footage of this match that was hitherto thought lost. It was a very
ugly spectacle, with Riggs patronising Court with intentionally weak
shots. It was massively unseemly, cruel and disgraceful. This situation
left the number one woman player, Billie Jean King, deciding she had to
play Riggs in a game where she would be playing for a lot more than
Battle of the Sexes is about many things besides tennis. In fact it's not really about tennis as a sport at all. Like the best sports documentaries the sport itself is merely something for the really important stuff to hang off. These were turbulent years in American history in any case, what with all the changes that were happening all around and the women's lib movement was one of the key forces for change. King was one of the figureheads for this movement and a very political person. She, therefore, seemed the perfect match for the unreconstructed Riggs and the one who would be best placed to put his outdated opinions in their place. She was a much stronger personality too compared to Margaret Court.
The follow up encounter was a different story. King is a truly inspirational figure in many ways. I didn't really know a great deal about her before watching this other than she was a tennis superstar. On the evidence of this film she was extremely engaging and likable. And a very strong-minded tennis opponent (although it seems that Bobby Riggs evidently missed the meeting where that was made clear). Contrastingly, Riggs came across like a complete idiot. His views now seem hilariously out-dated. Admittedly, he does provide the humour in this film so utterly brazen are his ludicrous statements. Surprisingly, it looks like King had some affection for Riggs, as their various joint press conferences conveys a certain joviality. She most probably thought he was an okay guy and it was what he represented that was what was really awful.
The match itself was the most watched tennis match ever, which is quite shocking when you think about it. The whole concept is really pretty ugly. It's actually pretty bad that it had to happen at all but it was made necessary and important. Watching it, I just couldn't understand how even back in less enlightened times anyone in their right mind would wish for Riggs to defeat King. He and his supporters seemed to represent something so deeply cretinous. Anyway, when the match itself kicks in, it's a pretty exciting affair as the battle lines have been well and truly drawn. Our audience burst into applause when the winning shot was made. The result certainly put an end to some of the rubbish spouted by the likes of Riggs but it was ultimately only a small step on the road to equality. For instance, it took Wimbledon a further 35 years to equal the pay between the sexes. Well better late than never I suppose although in fairness tennis is seemingly the only sport where equal pay actually exists at all. Ultimately this is an enlightening film about a murky episode but one where good values at least won out in the end.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This documentary gives an excellent window into an interesting era of women's rights and international tennis. It would have been all too easy for the creators to have painted Bobby Riggs as the bad guy, or Billie Jean King as some righteous zealot, but to their credit, both come out looking very human and likable. The film shows what a true champion King was. Incredibly skillful, disciplined and super-fit, she was well equipped to take on Riggs in his bold bit to defeat her and bid to prove men were superior players. It's fascinating that in Riggs' previous match against Margaret Court, Court is completely psyched out by Riggs, making ridiculous mistakes despite her proved record as a champion. In the lead up to her own match against Riggs, King is having none of that, laughing off Riggs' grand claims and put-downs and showing a freakish ability to focus on the task at hand. Riggs is shown to have hauled himself up from a background of poverty and obscurity -- he's pugnacious and resourceful and persistent. We must note that some of his comments about women are offensive, but often he comes across in this film more as someone who enjoys stirring the pot, hogging the limelight and having a bit of fun. And making some money, of course. There is some genuine affection in some of his exchanges at press conferences with King. I deliberately hadn't researched who won the final match, so I was thrilled when King holds the trophy high. Well, I am female. Despite the silliness and the politics around the event, there is a sense of real achievement and joy. In addition, the film's coverage of how the women's international tennis organisation was formed, and King's key role in it, is fascinating. Overall, this film is great entertainment.
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