Battle of the Sexes Screening at ACMI

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Posted 2014-01-05 by Richard Leathemfollow

Fri 10 Jan 2014 - Thu 13 Feb 2014

Director: James Erskine (One Night in Turin, From the Ashes)

What do you think would be the most watched tennis match of all time? Surely it's one of the great men's Wimbledon finals - Borg vs McEnroe? Federer vs Nadal? Not even close. By far the most watched match is the famous Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

From today's perspective, it's hard to appreciate why this match was so important. King was one of the top women players in the world. What did she have to prove by playing a guy in his mid 50s? Surely she had nothing to gain and everything to lose.

This is what I used to think before I saw James Erskine's doco The Battle of the Sexes.

Imagine - it's the mid 1970s. Inspired by the inroads made in race equality in America in the 1960s, women were beginning to start their own movement for equality. John Lennon's song Women are the Niggers of the World spelt it out. It was their turn to strike out. Women tennis players, like women in all walks of life back then, were generally not in control of their own destiny. The men that controlled the women's tour decided when and where the women played, and they made sure they earned a mere fraction of what the men earned. King, along with six other Americans and two Australians on the women's tour started their own association and organised their own tour. Unfortunately, instead of bringing the women's game together, a competing association soon started which only divided the women and delayed their efforts to be treated, and paid, equally.

Just prior to this, Bobby Riggs, a dyed-in-the-wool loud-mouthed chauvinist, challenged King to a battle of the sexes match to keep women in their place. She repeatedly declined.

To her horror Margaret Court accepted the challenge. At the time Margaret Court was the world's number 1. She was also extremely conservative, and by her own admission not political or interested in women's lib. She didn't comprehend the importance of the event, and worst of all, her fragile nerves were a bad match for Riggs' incessant hustling. He psyched her out before the match had even started and the result was a complete blow out.

It was then that King knew she had to play Riggs.

What might not be known to a lot of people is that Riggs was no slouch on the court himself. At one point he won the Wimbledon Men's Singles, Men's Doubles and Mixed Doubles all in the same year. And he may have been in his 50s, but tennis was no power game back then, so he still had the opportunity to create a victory for himself using strategy and psychology.

Riggs whipped the media into a frenzy and created a circus like atmosphere leading up to the match. King, for her part, played it smartly too. She wasn't intimidated by the trash talk and on the surface she deflected his verbal volleys with humour while keeping focussed on the task at hand. Even so, she was under tremendous pressure having seemingly the reputation of the women's lib movement dependant on the result of this one match, in addition to spending her time off court fighting for the rights of women players and dealing with her own sexual identity.

Despite women, and some men, wanting King to win, a lot of the women players were betting against her.

Played at the Houston Astrodome in front of 30,000 people, and seen live by 90 million around the world, there had never been a tennis match like it, and never will again. It was a match that defined a moment in time.

Filmmaker Erskine captures that time, intercutting incredibly sexist advertisements from the 70s and showing interviews where women tennis players are being asked when they're going to pack it in and start looking after their husbands. How the times have changed.

For the uninitiated, or even those who think they know the whole story, Battle of the Sexes is crammed with interesting detail. All the important figures feature and get the chance to share their perspective. The film's structure works to its advantage too, eschewing a strict chronological order for something which offers more dramatic impact.

My only criticism is the occasional poor choice of music, especially in the final scene where a montage of current top women players have their say. The insipid music would better suit a margarine commercial rather than a soundtrack to an inspirational ambassador for equal rights like Billie Jean King.

This aside, I heartily recommend Battle of the Sexes. Wisely, ACMI are screening it while the Australian Open takes place just a few metres along the Yarra at Melbourne Park. Tennis fans would do well to check it out, although you don't need to know about tennis to be thoroughly enthralled.

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!date 10/01/2014 -- 13/02/2014
121995 - 2023-06-12 23:30:47


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