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The good girl and the bad boy: King vs. Riggs in ‘Battle of the Sexes’

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There are few more individualistic activities than tennis and few more fiercely individualistic people than tennis players.

“Battle of the Sexes,” which opens Friday, Sept. 22, gives us the iconic clash between two such individuals – tennis star Billie Jean King and former champ Bobby Riggs – in a 1973 match that was both a media event and a cause célèbre in the then-rising women’s movement. (King would win 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.)

At that time, there was no LGBTQ movement, and tennis players did not make the lavish livings they do today. The men were still something of barnstormers earning little more than beer money, and the women – whom they did not necessarily treat well – made squat.

 Billie Jean King in New York, 1978. Photograph by Lynn Gilbert

Billie Jean King in New York, 1978. Photograph by Lynn Gilbert

This was about to change as World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (played by Sarah Silverman with a silver hair streak and lots of attitude), King (Emma Stone) and eight other players formed a women’s circuit backed by Virginia Slims cigarettes – again, this was the 1970s – complete with tennis outfits by designer Ted Tinling (a welcome Alan Cumming). It would become the basis of the Women’s Tennis Association.

But not everyone wished the fledging circuit well. Player turned promoter Jack Kramer (a marvelously smug Bill Pullman) ostracized them from the United States Lawn Tennis Association. And former world No. 1 and Wimbledon and U.S. champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) – at loose ends as a token employee in a company owned by the father of his wealthy wife, Priscilla (a coolly sympathetic Elizabeth Shue) – offered to take King on to prove that the best woman couldn’t beat a man.

When King rebuffed him, Riggs turned to her rival, the more conventional, disapproving Margaret Smith Court (Jessica McNamee, playing the film’s only really unsympathetic character). It was only after Riggs trounced Court that King agreed to take him on, setting the stage for an event that was more than a sporting contest, one watched by 90 million people worldwide on ABC.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Simon Beaufoy, “Battle of the Sexes” gives us the real life story behind the reel life story – the one that we did not know then, because it couldn’t be told then. Not just the married King’s nascent lesbianism – which Court denounced as licentious – but, since tennis is a mirror game, the married Riggs’ sense of purposelessness.

Stone plays King as the classic good girl, driven not only by a personal desire to succeed but by a sense of responsibility – to her country, her parents, her teammates, women’s tennis and women at large. It’s a responsibility that she fears will be compromised by her affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Carell’s Riggs is her counterpoint – a devil-may-care Mad Man masking and medicating an untethered life with gambling, childish stunts and Peter Pan insouciance. (Watching them I couldn’t but think of another good girl, Hillary Clinton, and the bad boys in her life – husband Bill and opponent Donald Trump.)

King and Rigg’s inevitable clash on Sept. 20, 1973 in the Houston Astrodome – staged so tautly that you forget the match is long over – captures their sport’s brutal beauty. Or, as King once said, “Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.” In the end of the film, the two warriors are alone in their respective locker rooms – a smiling loser, a sobbing winner – tennis’ two faces.

King would continue with a storied career not only as a player but as a promoter of team tennis and a gay rights’ activist. (She and partner Ilana Kloss are godparents to ex-husband Larry King’s children by his second wife.)

Riggs – who actually divorced wife Priscilla in 1972, before the “Battle of the Sexes” – would remarry her and remain with her until her death in March of 1995. Riggs himself would die seven months later of prostate cancer.

King called him often in those last days. In an HBO documentary about her life, she recalled speaking to him the night before he died and telling him, “I love you.”