In 1973 there was an event held and broadcast on American national television that is still one of the most watched of all time, which was quite an achievement for a tennis match. But it was no ordinary match, as both sides felt there was a lot at stake, and served as a focus for the changes in society that were occurring at the time, specifically in the field of women's rights, where Billie Jean King, recognised already as one of the greatest players of all time, was pitted against the fifty-five year old Bobby Riggs, a past champion at Grand Slam level who was now past his prime yet still believed he could beat any woman and meant to prove it. And so the Battle of the Sexes as it was advertised as was about to get underway...
Looking back on the nineteen-seventies can from a modern perspective bring about a bemusement at the attitudes and the events which displayed those attitudes, and none more so than the match between King and Riggs. You cannot imagine a contest between a man and a woman on equal terms in sport going on today, if only because it just wouldn't be that big of a deal, which in some ways indicates the fight for female emancipation had succeeded, but all that had to begin somewhere, and this documentary insisted it was a lot to do with the point tennis became professional and women, as well as men, were able to make it their occupation, though even that was not without difficulties. King was at the forefront of establishing a women's tour against much opposiition, and as if that were not achievement enough became one of the highest profile gay celebrities of the seventies.
Directors James Erskine and Zara Hayes used a little of the reconstruction techniques that twenty-first century documentaries were so fond of, casting actors to play out the major elements of their story whether to embellish what they had or to represent what there was no clips of, but in the main they drew on a wealth of footage from the time which served to illustrate the commentary from the interviews, with many of the major names of the day contributing. Riggs was long dead by the time this was made, but even so there were seemingly miles of clips of him sounding off about his pet subject, the opinion that women were better off in the kitchen or the bedroom doing a man's bidding.
Watching him now you can see he was deliberately pushing the public's buttons to get a reaction, and it worked like a dream for him, as now this hasbeen was getting more publicity for his antics than he ever had as a tennis player in his heyday. The film strongly implies Riggs' real passion was money, as he had a huge gambling habit he wanted to fuel, and putting on a show where he was certain he would win was a sure method of scooping up a lot of cash in winnings, yet somehow this naked greed tapped into the mood of era and his talent for headline-grabbing, which may have equalled his talent for his chosen sport, brought the contentious issues of feminism to the fore in a way that the marches and discussion shows on television were not doing.
Therefore in a weird way you could posit that Riggs' blowhard chauvinism was doing more good than harm, though it didn't seem that way as his first match against a woman, Margaret Court, went his way and appeared to validate his opinions, though the shy and retiring Court was simply overwhelmed by the occasion. Step forward Billie Jean King, who was right to observe this was taking a serious subject and reducing it to the level of novelty, but that was very much in keeping with the spirit of the decade, and you could admire her for finally snapping and saying, you know what? I can beat this buffoon and put him in his place. Again, those clips the directors uncovered, from ads featuring the two battlers to Batman and Robin being saved by Batgirl in a PSA, to the rallies headed by famed feminists of the day like Gloria Steinem (also interviewed), to a load of vintage interviews proving what a talking point this was, were instrumental in conjuring that day in 1973, though the uneasy sense that the reactionaries haven't gone away never quite leaves this window on the past.