Although Billie Jean King is described as the first “sports figure” to be featured on “American Masters,” her cultural influence obviously goes well beyond lobs and volleys, as this crisp 90-minute documentary makes clear. Timed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s “Battle of the Sexes” with Bobby Riggs in 1973, the program chronicles the tennis star’s push to win women equal prize money and her own eventual outing, making her an icon of the gay-rights movement. Almost 70 and feisty as ever, King is a terrific interview, and barring a few minor foot faults, “Billie Jean King” serves mostly aces.
As she describes it, King recognized soon after she began playing tennis that this was an elitist game, played largely by the white and privileged. Yet it’s still hard to grasp how very much has changed since she became a star in the early 1960s, gradually becoming aware of the great disparity in how women were treated against the backdrop of feminism, women’s lib and Roe vs. Wade.
Perhaps inevitably, filmmaker James Erskine devotes a sizable chunk of the documentary to the widely seen match against Riggs, a 55-year-old hustler who had badly beaten Margaret Court after daring any of the professional women to play him.
King recalls being not just concerned about the future of women in sports — including what a loss might do to then-nascent Title IX legislation — but the prospect of her own personal life being torn apart, since she had begun seeing a woman (while still married to her husband, Larry, who is among those interviewed) during that period. There’s even the hilarious incongruity of Howard Cosell stressing how attractive King would be if she just grew her hair out, by way of introducing her in a showcase about women earning respect and equality.
Beyond the principals — including many of King’s tennis contemporaries — the filmmakers interview Hillary Clinton and former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, which probably won’t sit well with those who will see the linkage of Clinton to this groundbreaking woman as dispensing a not-so-subtle message. Then again, King proudly pushes enough conservative hot buttons all by herself, so what’s one more?
“American Masters” is never exactly hard-hitting, and there are some fuzzy dramatized shots incorporated around the Riggs match that Erskine could have easily done without. Yet at its best the format does provide a celebratory dive into such a personality, worthy of being honored while they’re still around to take the bow.
By that measure — for those who remember King in her prime, and perhaps even more so those who don’t — this one is a clear winner.