Billie-Jean Kings defeat of the 1939 mens Wimbledon champion in 1973 provides the main thrust of a new film but like other sporting movies the facts are often massaged to augment the story
After the credits finished rolling at the end of the Battle of the Sexes, the new cinematic re-creation of the events surrounding the famous tennis match in 1973 between Billie Jean King, the worlds No1 female player, and Bobby Riggs, the Wimbledon mens singles champion of 1939, I asked myself if the staging of the event could really have been as preposterously over the top as it is depicted in the film.
The answer, after consulting an eyewitness, was that, for once, Hollywood might have underplayed the reality.
Yes, there really were 30,000 spectators in the vast Houston Astrodome for a match which, in tennis terms, had no meaning at all. Yes, there were cheerleaders in hot pants, waving pom-poms. Yes, King really was conveyed into the arena by husky young men bearing the champion on a feather-bedecked Pharaonic litter (Riggs, wearing a jacket emblazoned Sugar Daddy, arrived in a rickshaw pulled by young women in tight tops, known as Bobbys Bosom Buddies.)
According to the eyewitness, the New York Times reporter Grace Lichtenstein, there were midgets dressed as dancing bears cavorting near a champagne bar and a carvery at courtside. The University of Houston marching band played selections from Jesus Christ Superstar. George Foreman, crowned heavyweight champion of the world eight months earlier, the crooner Andy Williams and the great Cleveland Browns full-back Jim Brown were among the celebrity guests.
In her book A Long Way, Baby, a portrait of the womens professional circuit that year, Lichtenstein added that the King-Riggs match had turned the Astrodome into one vast casino. Just about every possible aspect of the contest became the subject of betting, including how many sets the winner would lose and how many games the loser would win. Just about the only pool overlooked was how many tubas the band would have playing the national anthem.
So it was an entertainment, sure enough. But what attracted those tens of thousands to the Astrodome and drew a television audience of 37 million across the US was not the champagne and the pom-poms and the marching band. It was a face-off between masculine assumptions of superiority and an attempt to haul the idea of gender equality into the cultural mainstream.
If the films treatment of that essential conflict is a little cartoonish then that, too, is how it really was. Riggs really did say at a press conference, while sitting next to King: Dont get me wrong I love women, in the bedroom and in the kitchen. Howard Cosell, the front man for the live ABC telecast, really did drape his arm around the shoulders of Rosie Casals, his co-commentator for the evening, patronising a woman who partnered King to seven grand slam doubles titles.
Riggs certainly knew how to sell the event. In the film his initial pitch to King goes straight for the tabloid angle: Male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist, right? The film never quite works out Riggss real view of feminism, if any. Gambling is the motor of his life, and his priority seems to be to create an event in which he can back himself to win with some certainty, in order to pay off a bunch of debts.
The emotional core of the film, however, is the love affair between King and a Beverly Hills hairdresser Marilyn Barnett. The filmmakers and the actors capture the initial intensity of the relationship with a power that temporarily wipes the tennis business off the screen. But the date of the discovery of the affair by Kings husband, Larry, is moved back five years to coincide with the buildup to the match, and there is no mention of Barnett in the closing where-are-they-now captions.
We are left with a soft-focus memory of a gentle, caring young woman rather than the character described in Kings 1982 autobiography in terms that made her seem predatory almost from the start, and who in 1981, after the end of the affair, had attempted unsuccessfully to sue the player before falling from the balcony of the Malibu beach house they had shared and becoming paralysed from the waist down.
What debt do the makers of such films particularly in sport, where dates and scores and results are a matter of record owe to the facts? The Damned United presented Michael Sheen as a credible Brian Clough but allowed Timothy Spall to make a grotesquely unrecognisable Peter Taylor. Secretariat introduced a fictitious plot-line about a performance clause in a syndication agreement that might have bankrupted the owner, Penny Chenery, had the colt not won the Triple Crown in 1973. In fact Chenerys financial problems had been resolved the previous year when another of her horses won the Kentucky Derby.
In Clint Eastwoods Invictus, Nelson Mandela presents Francois Pienaar with a William Henley poem I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul before the start of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. In fact the gift from the president to the Springboks captain was of Theodore Roosevelts speech, the Man in the Arena: It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the area But Henleys Invictus a poem which, admittedly, was also close to Mandelas heart gave the film its title.
In Moneyball, the story of Billy Beanes stats-led revolution at the Oakland As, the firing of a named scouting director is distorted, the timing of the arrival of a new leadoff hitter is moved by two years and Beanes revelatory reading of the analytical work of the sports writer Bill James is adjusted by seven years. Ron Howards Rush, the story of the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, is made to rest on a personal animosity between the two F1 rivals which simply did not exist. Hunts physical assault on a journalist was also complete fiction.
These are all with the exception of The Damned United, anyway highly entertaining films, each of which adjusted the facts in the search for a tauter and more vivid narrative. Shakespeare did quite a bit of that, too. But when it comes to modern sport, a bunch of highly successful documentaries Emir Kustiricas Maradona, Asif Kapadias Senna, ESPNs 30 for 30 series have shown that sticking to the facts is usually a better way of revealing the emotional truth. I liked The Battle of the Sexes, but I could have liked it even better.
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