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The Battle of the Sexes [DVD]
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The Battle of the Sexes; that tells the story of a match that defined a movement, the infamous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in Houston 1973. Weaving together the story of the embryonic women's movement and the battle to establish equality on the tennis court (a literal level playing field). It shows how a group of women banded together to overthrow the male establishment - to become true pioneers. More than a mere historic telling, we hope this film has the emotional power of a drama.
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[For the record and to avoid confusion: “The Battle of the Sexes” is also the title of a comedy from 1959, starring Peter Sellers (and released on DVD in 2008). This review is not about the old movie in black-and-white.]
[Please note: there may be some spoilers ahead, but since all facts in this review are part of the public record, they can hardly be described as spoilers.]
This film is about tennis. Perhaps you do not care much for tennis. Perhaps you think this film is nothing for you. But before you stop reading, I have to tell you that it is much more than that. It is about men and women in sports. And before you stop reading, I have to tell you one more time that it is much more than that. It is about equal opportunities and civil rights; something that is (or should be) important to everyone, regardless of gender.
WOMEN AND TENNIS
Around 1970, women had been playing tennis in the US for decades, as amateurs and professionals. One of the pioneers was Althea Gibson (1927-2003). In 1956 she became the first black athlete and the first black woman to cross the colour line of international tennis when she won a Grand Slam title.
But while women could play, there were two important differences between male and female players: # 1. Men had more chances to play, because there were more tours for men than for women. # 2. Men could win more prize-money than women. Many women and even some men felt that this was not right.
When female players took their concerns to the US Tennis Association, they were told to forget it. This was just the way of the world. In frustration, some female players tried to arrange a tour of their own. Many female players wanted to join them, but they were afraid to do so, because the USTA warned them: if you go on this tour, you will never play for us again.
The intimidation worked on many, but not on all. A few female players were very brave. They put their careers on the line and arranged their own tour. When it was a success, the USTA eventually came round and let them in again.
THE FIRST GAME
Around 1970 the feminist movement was beginning to attract attention in the US. Some men did not like it, but they were afraid to say so. One man was not afraid to speak out. His name was Bobby Riggs, a former world champion who had retired from tennis in 1951. According to Riggs, a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and a woman’s role was to be a wife and a mother.
The former tennis player was prepared to come out of retirement in order to prove his point. In 1973 he challenged Billie Jean King, at the time a famous tennis player, to a match. He claimed he could beat her any time, even though he was much older than her.
He wanted to play and win. In his mind, his victory would show the world just how wrong and misguided the feminist movement was. He wanted the members of the feminist movement to shut up and to stop their actions.
Riggs was born in 1918, while King was born in 1943. In other words, she was 25 years younger than him. But King declined. She said she did not want to play against him.
However, another female player responded to the challenge: Margaret Court, who was at the time the number one female player in the world. Court was born in 1942. She was 26 years younger than Biggs.
The match took place in Ramona, California, on 13 May 1973. Around 5,000 fans showed up to see what was going to happen. The match was over the best of three sets. Riggs was more than fifty years old, but he could still play. Court was a great player, but she was wiped out.
Riggs won 6-2, 6-1, so there was no need for a third set. Since this game took place on Mother’s Day, it went down in history as the Mother’s Day Massacre.
THE SECOND GAME
Once the result was in, Billie Jean King changed her mind about the issue. She felt that now she had to take up the challenge in order to show Biggs and the world just how wrong he was.
The match took place in Houston, Texas, on 20 September 1973. This match was over the best of five sets. A lot was at stake here. For both players. It was not only a question of their honour and pride. There was also an economic motive: the prize-money was 100,000 US dollars, the winner takes all. And most importantly, there was the question of the feminist movement.
Could a women hold her own against a man? Was Biggs right when he said a woman’s place is in the kitchen, taking care of her husband and children? Or was King right when she said that a woman could do anything a man could do and sometimes even do it better?
Riggs was ready for another victory, but this time things did not go quite as he had hoped and planned. He was wiped out. King won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, so there was no need for the last two sets.
The match was billed by the organisers as the Battle of the Sexes. More than 30,000 fans showed up to see what would happen, the largest audience to watch a tennis match in the US. The televised match had an estimated audience of 90 million world-wide, including 50 million in the US. If you count replays, it was and still is the most watched tennis game in history.
This film gives us the games, but it does much more than, because the games are placed in their political, economic, and social context. This film is the history of tennis and the history of the feminist movement in the US.
Old footage from the 1970s is mixed with recent interviews with several key players (pun intended), including Billie Jean King. Bobby Riggs died in 1995, so there is only old footage with him, but his son is interviewed.
REVIEWS OF THE FILM
The film was praised by the public and by professional critics. On IMDb it has a rating of 72 per cent. The Guardian reviewed it twice.
In the first review, Andrew Pulver gives it four out of five stars. The headline says: “Its significance may be overestimated, but the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs retains its fascination.” [27 June 2013]
In the second review, Mark Kermode says: “Whether you’re familiar with the story or not (and I confess I wasn’t), this riveting documentary will have you on the edge of your ringside seat as a civil-rights battle is played out on court.” [30 June 2013]
Sarah Crompton reviewed it for the Telegraph. In her review, which is very positive, she quotes from an editorial in the New York Times: “In a single tennis match, Billie Jean King was able to do more for the cause of women than most feminists can achieve in a lifetime.” [12 June 2013]
If you ask me, the positive reviews are fully justified. This film deserves to be watched. The producers focus on one historical event, in fact two historical events, and both are placed in their historical context. Taken together, these matches form an important chapter in the history of the twentieth century and the history of the feminist movement. They have symbolic value. They are iconic.
Even if you do not care much for tennis (and I confess I don’t), I think this film is worth watching. If you care about human rights, in particular equal opportunities for men and women, this film is definitely something for you.
PS. For more information, see the following books:
** “Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson” by Frances Clayton Gray (2005)
** “Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports” by Susan Ware (2011)
** “The Last Sure Thing: The Life & Times of Bobby Riggs” by Tom LeCompte (2003)
** “A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match that levelAed the Game” by Selena Roberts (2005, 2006)
However this documentary tries to give it a far more significant role in helping to give women a greater role in wider society and although that argument is far from fully convincing, it still demonstrates the importance it played in legitimising women's tennis at a time when it struggled to survive and demonstrates why it took so long to enjoy parity with the men's game.
The footage is astounding, I have never seen much of this footage as a 20 something European male and to see the Margaret Court match with much footage of Billie Jean and Riggs, helps to give much colour to an era of tennis largely forgotten. It is incredible how far the game has come since then, but it is thanks to people like Billie Jean that it is a diverse international sport.
I felt the personal side of the two characters could have been explored more. Billie Jean was married at the time to a man and struggling with her sexuality, but the significance of this is rather overlooked. It also is a bit unfair on Riggs, who is shown as a one dimensional character. Yet in reality he was a great champion who took on this guise to promote the event and Billie Jean as seen in the advert of them together was happy to play along with the commercial appeal this brought. They remained close and Riggs was gracious in defeat. He died of cancer in the early 90s and was quite keen on promoting the women's game.
Aside from the harsh assessment of Riggs, this is a great documentary.
for the recognition of women's tennis & highlights how the fight for equal pay in professional tennis
took many more years to be won.