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Battle of the Sexes - Film Review

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Published October 6th 2017
A Rigged contest?

John McEnroe recently claimed that Donald Trump offered him a substantial fee to play either Serena or Venus Williams. McEnroe also said that Serena would "rank like 700" in world ratings if she were playing against men.

Which makes us wonder how far we have come since 1973, when in the Houston Astrodome, what is still the largest crowd for a tennis match (30,472), together with a viewing audience of approximately 90 million, watched the 55-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs challenge the 29-year-old Billie Jean King.

Politico, the website, tells us that, though the movie takes some liberties in the chronology of events, smooths over the acrimonious break-up between King and her first woman lover and minimises the huge financial cost to King when she is "outed", it is for the most part true to real-life events.

The nearest person to a villain in the movie, Jack Kramer, did resign at Billie Jean King's insistence, as a commentator of the epic match, and was not able to stop the merger of King's maverick Virginia Slims women's tournament with the US Lawn Tennis Association, nor to block equity in pay nor the reinstatement of the top women players in the world rankings table.

Your aged reviewer, who watched the 1973 match, wondered how such an event would be enough to make a memorable movie and is delighted to report that indeed it is.

Billie Jean's coming to terms with her sexuality is sympathetically portrayed, as is her loyal and supportive husband. Again, the fact that, when her ex-husband remarried and had a child, Billie Jean and her new partner were asked to be god-parents, suggests that the portrayal of both in the movie is true to life.

Even Bobbie Riggs is painted as feckless but essentially good-hearted, exaggerating the "battle of the sexes" for box-office reasons. Such may well be the case, as apparently he and Billy Jean King were firm friends until his death.

The movie depicts life in the seventies very well, with the "don't ask, don't tell" negativity towards homosexuality, and the resistance to equal pay for women on the one hand, and the rise of strong women role models such as Billie Jean King on the other.

Much was riding on that tennis match.

Margaret Court, portrayed in the movie as cold, unsociable and judgemental, had just been beaten by Bobbie Riggs in straight sets. Another defeat could have significantly damaged women's tennis, perhaps even women's equity.

King feels that if she had lost, she could have set back the women's movement 20 years. So, though most of the people in the movie, with the exception of Jack Kramer and Margaret Court, are portrayed sympathetically, there is no lack of tension.

The stakes are high. This movie can be watched as pleasant spectacle, which it is, or as a snapshot of society's attitude to women in the seventies.

Well worth watching.

And as we watch, we can celebrate that, as Heather Hogan tells us, "in 2017, Billie Jean King has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, is the namesake of the tennis center where the U.S. Open is played, and lives with her life partner, Ilana Kloss."

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When: On Release
Where: Cinemas across Australia including Dendy Portside
Cost: $18
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