Every now and then, top male tennis players croak the need for them to be awarded larger prize amounts as compared to their female counterparts. While ratings argument doesn’t cut much ice, equal pay for equal work does (to an extent). In the Majors, men play best of five sets against women’s best of three.
There is certainly more hard work involved. As for ratings, there was a time in 80s and 90s when female ratings were higher thanks to Graf, Seles, Martina and Evert. Now Fedal and Novak are huge draws, but that doesn’t mean the principle shud be compromised. And if ratings matter, shud not Roger and Rafa be earning much higher than the rest of the pack? Anyway, equal prize money represents progress, and it is neither possible not proper to roll it back.
Things were pretty discriminatory in the early 70s even in the West. Because of Billy Jean King’s persistent threats to boycott over unequal prize money, US Open became the first Major to offer equal rewards in men and women categories. But the Establishment tried to hit back. Billy Jean and her husband formed a professional league, set up the WTA and demanded better compensations.
USLTA, under the influence of Jack Kramer (who has been depicted as the prime villain in the film), banned Billy Jean and some other top players. It was in this raucous atmosphere that Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old former men’s Wimbledon and twice US Open champ challenged Billy Jean for a match-up to be sold as a battle between a self-professed MCP and hair-legged feminist. Riggs was a degenerate gambler and a hustler, and wanted to pay off some of his debts. Billy Jean passed his offer, which was lapped up by Margaret Court, the then number One.
Bobby Riggs humiliated Court 6-2, 6-1 in what is now called as Mother’s Day Massacre. With the victory, Bobby’s braggadocio went full blast. Though he was a showman who deliberately courted controversy, yet most of his comments (and film does show them as well) were cringeworthy, and beyond the pale of civilised behaviour even considering that those were the 70s. But he was also a clever businessman who succeeded in provoking Billy Jean to challenge him to avenge the womenfolk. In his heart, he harboured a wish to next take on Chris Evert, and mint as much moolah as possible. With his downright demeaning conduct, Bobby Riggs managed to create mass hysteria in the States for this event.
There are some sequences in the film which seem to be concocted, except that they are not. Riggs did say in a press conference, with Billy Jean sitting by his side, that he liked women, but only in his kitchen and bedroom. A hell lot of tamasha involving cheerleaders, boxing-style players’ appearances, gifting of a piglet by Billy to Bobby seem all very Hollywoodesque, but they did happen in reality. In a way, this match-up, quite like major historical events, turned up to be much bigger than what even a modern Hollywood film could capture.
Bobby riggs has been shown popping vitamin and amino acid pills before the match. He was definitely not in his best shape. During the match, he complained of pain in his arm. Billy Jean, on the other hand, had always been a firm believer in gender parity. She gave her best shot, and overwhelmed Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. This win broke a lot of long-held notions and carried huge symbolic weight, despite some critics arguing that an unfit, 55-year-old man was beaten by a very fit, 29-year-old woman.
Riggs, after all, had won Wimbledon in 1939, and the Billy Jean-Bobby Riggs matchup was held in 1973. Whatever might be said about the quality of tennis and the parity, or the lack of it, between the class of opponents, it would have been a humongous disaster for females had Billy Jean also succumbed, after Court did. Her win, on the other, came as a shot in the arm for the feminist movement. It didn’t hurt that later on Billy Jean came out of the closet and became a prominent LGBTQ activist.
Even with such a strong story to tell, the filmmakers felt the need to predate and overemphasise the lesbian relationship between Billy Jean and Marilyn, and its discovery by her husband, Larry King. I don’t think a biographical film shud take such dramatic liberties with actual events, because more often than not, they don’t work. In real life, it was five years later, in 1978 that Larry stumbled upon her secret. In 1981, Marilyn filed a palimony suit against Billy Jean, who had to acknowledge their relationship. Larry and Billy remained married till 1987. His character in the film has been depicted with a lot of sympathy, and painted in positive hues.
This could have been a great film about the early 70s scene in female tennis circuit. But the needless tempering of facts related to Billy Jean’s personal life not only lengthened the runtime, but also over -dramtised the events (and not sufficiently enough, The Event).
Emma Stone has played Billy Jean with conviction, but it is Steve Carell (as always) who just kills it with his mannerisms and body language. Who else could have played a circus monkey like Bobby Riggs (with due respects) better? Not Jim Carrey, or Vince Vaughan, or Owen Wilson, or Will Ferrel or Ben Stiller. It had to be Steve Carell. Go watch this only for him. It’s a good film, which squandered the opportunity to be better.
Abhinav Pancholi, IRS, Kolkata. The author is an avid sports lover with a passion for literature.
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