Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Winning 'Battle' Between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs

Despite being a tennis freak, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs's legendary 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" has never particularly interested me. Perhaps it was my age. I started following tennis closely as a 10-year-old boy in 1977 -- when the event was already in the rear-view mirror -- and women's tennis was alive and well. Each winter, my family would attend the Virginia Slims (later to become the Avon Champions) of Detroit -- where Cobo Hall was packed with eager fans -- and for all I knew it had always been that way.

Over the years, I've read about and watched documentaries about the Man vs. Woman spectacle -- sometimes compulsive-gambler Bobby says he threw the match to cash in, viewers say he underestimated Billie Jean and simply got outplayed -- and eventually came to appreciate its cultural significance. The tour was still a toddler then, so the best woman in the world losing to a 55-year-old man would have delegitimized it in the eyes of people who know nothing about the game. But the idea of yet another rehashing of the event -- much less another re-enactment -- seemed ill-advised, especially given Hollywood's horrendous track record with movies about tennis. ("Racquet," anyone?)

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris previously directed Steve Carell in "Little Miss Sunshine"

Which is why it is all the more remarkable that the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have succeeded so gallantly with their new "Battle of the Sexes," out Friday in select cities. Thanks to a deftly crafted script by Simon Beaufoy, the big-screen version finally brings the missing human element of the story, pulling back the curtain on the principals' personal tribulations at the time of the match -- Billie Jean's coming to terms with her attraction to women and Bobby's gambling addiction's effect on his marriage -- instead of placing all of its focus on the match itself.

The film wisely starts three years before the famed duel, as women's tennis reached a fork in the road. Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman had decided they were tired of being paid a fraction of what the men made -- why did the male U.S. Open champion get $12,500 and the female champion get only $1,500? -- so decided to break off from the United States Lawn Tennis Association to form the Virginia Slims Circuit. (Sarah Silverman's Heldman steals just about every scene!)

Jack Kramer (played to perfection by Bill Pullman) threatens to ban the woman from playing in the Grand Slam events if they walk, but they are undeterred. "How grand are your Grand Slams going to be without the top players, Jack?" Billie Jean asks, calling his bluff.

Ball's in Margaret's court 

From there, we see the fledgling circuit take form -- Natalie Morales brings a little color as flashy Rosie Casals and Jessica McNamee plays the villainous Margaret Court.with incredible touch -- and along the way Billie Jean meets Marilyn Barnett, a pretty blond hairdresser. Although King acted as consultant for the film, the directors made it clear that the 73-year-old -- who is a notorious control freak -- didn't exactly provide the details of her forbidden love affair. But Beaufoy's script manages to create a scenario that rings very true, highlighting the internal conflict King felt between being her authentic self and not wanting to risk hurting the tennis circuit she helped create as well as disappointing her conservative family and friends.

As wonderful as the performances were -- Emma Stone nails Billie Jean's voice and mannerisms; Steve Carell echoed Bobby's sexist routine that was more harmless teasing than serious malevolence; Andrea Riseborough brings Marilyn, about whom little is known, to life; and you'll completely believe that studly Austin Stowell's Larry is more than happy to be Mr. Billie Jean King, even if it means sharing her with another person -- what made the film a true winner for hardcore tennis fans was its incredible attention to detail on all things tennis. From hiring stand-ins who literally had King's and Riggs's strokes down pat (I could have sworn that was BJK's kick serve and slice-forehand approach) to shooting the match like you would see it on TV (I found myself actually getting into the rallies!) and recreating all of the Ted Tingling dresses (Alan Cumming delivers the film's campiest performance as the famed former player, designer, author and one-time British Intelligence spy), "The Battle of the Sexes" brilliantly captured the spirit of 1970s tennis mania. You could stop reading here and consider the film an "A" in my book.

That my only real criticism of it is an omission from the epilogue -- that Barnett later sued King for palimony in 1981 -- speaks to how much I enjoyed it. But on King, they merely said that she eventually found happiness with her longtime partner, Ilana Kloss. While this is entirely true, the omission of this monumental moment in LGBT history -- however painful for King -- actually speaks to a bigger issue with the film's star subject. In my eyes, Billie Jean King is a legend and a civil-rights pioneer. But as the film gracefully reminds us, even the greatest heroes are human -- and humans sometimes have serious flaws. After the film, there was a Q&A at the Cinépolis Chelsea with the directors, Elisabeth Shue (who plays Riggs's long-suffering wife), Riseborough and Stowell. I asked co-director Valerie Faris if they chose to omit mentioning the palimony suit on purpose. She said yes, partially because Barnett's life was very complicated -- she reportedly attempted suicide at some point -- and partially because the end result was that King had indeed finally found her way. And that they wanted the film to contain an "It gets better" message.

When Billie Jean finally came out in a 1998 interview in The Advocate, longtime love Ilana Kloss did not want to be identified by name as her partner

It's certainly true that Billie Jean came out on the other side of this scandal. But I do think it was a cop-out on the directors' parts not to include it. No one is saying Billie Jean King should be put on trial for the way she handled her sexuality. But an honest biopic shouldn't gloss over its subject's flaws, either, even during the "where they are now" section. And the truth is Billie Jean left a trail of tears along the way to where she is today -- and frankly I think her generational shame still haunts her even to this day.

Read HERE.

She was "outed" in 1981, yet she didn't "come out" until 1998, in an Advocate magazine story. Her gut reaction when Barnett sued her was to deny everything and try to paint her lover as an unstable liar.

The New York Times on April 30, 1981

When she realized Barnett had more than 100 love letters from their affair. she then decided to be "honest" in a televised press conference.

Only her version of honesty led to her being married to Larry for six more years -- and included a mealy mouthed People magazine cover story saying Billie Jean didn't "feel she was gay" and that they were considering having a child. Yet by all accounts, even according to the man who played Larry in the film and spent time with him, the marriage had long been a business arrangement based on mutual respect, goals and affection, with Larry King telling People magazine in 1981 that he'd known about the affair "all along." (BJK later told The Advocate that she had been trying to divorce Larry but he wouldn't give her one.)
I hate being called a homosexual because I don’t feel that way. It really upsets me. I particularly like working with children and motivating them, and we had a lot of ideas about programs for junior tennis. Now I think they’re probably going to bag it and say, “I don’t want this creep around my kids.”

Billie Jean sat before the American people and said that having an affair was "wrong," whether it be with a man or a woman -- fair enough. But then said, "It's very important to me to thank Larry. I love him. He's my husband, my lover and my best friend. He's been that for 19 years." (Is that coming out?) She talked at length in People about private conversations about Marilyn with Marilyn's therapist. (Huh? Does any therapist discuss his clients with outside people and do you discuss it with the media?) 

She then wrote a rather unfortunate book in which she described her relationship with Barnett as being "insignificant," "inconsequential" and "overpublicized," and repeatedly said things like she didn't like being "labeled gay." (Gay = bad, get it?) Her tone-deaf sidestepping of the truth is said to have been so upsetting to Martina Navratilova, who had recently been outed herself but embraced it in an early '80s "bisexual" way, that she ended their successful doubles partnership and the once-close friends didn't really speak for five years. (Others say the freeze-out had more to do with Rita Mae Brown and/or Nancy Lieberman.) Billie Jean claimed she had no idea why.

And the whole reason King was sued is because she and Larry tried to evict Barnett from the Malibu home the Kings had put her up in for years, even letting her use their credit cards. Barnett, who broke her spine during a fall off the house's balcony that is said to have been a suicide attempt, said King had bought her the house and had promised to let her live there and was only suing to avoid becoming homeless. Now I have no way of knowing what was or wasn't promised. And Marilyn may very well have been the scorned woman the Kings made her out to be. But the blog Third Estate Sunday Review says a friend of Billie Jean's back in the day put it this way: "Billie Jean wanted to be the big swinging dick, wanted to care for Marilyn, wanted to take care of her and then when Billie's got a new lover, she wants to walk away from Marilyn and play it like she never made promises. If she'd been a man, she'd been have crucified." (I concur.) Instead, Barnett went on trial as a "predatory homosexual" and the Kings' legal team engaged in a smear campaign that included putting Marilyn's barely known aunt out in front of the the public to trash her, going so far as to accuse Marilyn of murdering her own mother. Courts were not friendly to LGBT people, so the "straight" Kings prevailed at trial. (Barnett has since died, so was never able to fully share her side of things.) Even as the film was being finished, Billie Jean told the directors that she "loved having sex with Larry" while they were married -- and claimed they continued to do so even after the affair came to light. But Stowell (who played Larry) said Larry told him that they had an arrangement to have sex outside the marriage. I think when you've been living a lie for so long, you start to have trouble remembering the truth. A 2012 interview with King says she's been with Kloss for "more than 30 years," which would put that relationship's start date at 1981 or sooner.

Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) and Larry (Austin Stowell)

Again "Battle of the Sexes" is not meant to be a roast. Billie Jean is a product of her generation and a woman who has more than made up for anything she did wrong along the way. (She's even called herself a "wuss" compared with Martina.) And I'm the first to admit that without knowing all of the backstory as a boy, her awkward 1981 press conference admitting to the affair was actually an informative moment in my own coming out. But I think a succinct paragraph at the end of the film about the fallout of Billie Jean's affair was warranted. She's still a hero -- we just don't need to airbrush her warts.

Billie Jean is not your lover?

With Damian and Austin "Larry King" Stowell after the Q&A

From left: The moderator with Austin Stowell, Elisabeth Shue, Andrea Riseborough, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

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