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Battle of the Sexes (2017) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • In the wake of the sexual revolution and the rise of the women's movement, the 1973 tennis match between women's world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-men's-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was billed as the BATTLE OF THE SEXES and became one of the most watched televised sports events of all time, reaching 90 million viewers around the world. As the rivalry between King and Riggs kicked into high gear, off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles. The fiercely private King was not only championing for equality, but also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, as her friendship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) developed. And Riggs, one of the first self-made media-age celebrities, wrestled with his gambling demons, at the expense of his family and wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). Together, Billie and Bobby served up a cultural spectacle that resonated far beyond the tennis court, sparking discussions in bedrooms and boardrooms that continue to reverberate today.

  • The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • The year is 1973. Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has just been named the number one player in the sport of tennis. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) watches on TV as Billie Jean receives a phone call from one of her most famous fans, Richard Nixon.

    Billie Jean is at a dance with her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) when her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) walks in angrily with a letter from Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). Billie Jean and Gladys go to confront Jack over the fact that he and others are trying to keep female tennis players out of the Pacific Southwest Open as they feel the sport attracts more viewers with male players. Billie Jean decides that she and Gladys will hold their own tournament for female players.

    Bobby is having dinner with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and son Bobby Jr. (Cooper J. Friedman). Junior bets a dollar to Bobby over a match, but Priscilla is very much against gambling, which she knows is one of Bobby's vices.

    Billie Jean and her fellow players - Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), Peaches Bartkowicz (Martha MacIsaac), Nancy Richey (Lauren Kline), Valerie Ziegenfuss (Mickey Sumner), Judy Tegart Dalton (Fidan Manashirova), Kerry Melville Reid (Kaitlyn Christian), Kristy Pigeon (Ashley Weinhold), and Julie Heldman (Bridey Elliott) - are in the middle of a photo shoot in honor of the $1 contracts they signed for Gladys's tour, when Jack shows up to inform Billie Jean that if she plans to boycott Jack's tennis association with her own tournament, she and the other female players would be kicked out of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. Billie Jean accepts the ultimatum and tells the ladies they just got kicked out.

    Bobby and his own tennis buddies are out gambling, and Bobby wins a Rolls Royce. He brings it home to find Junior excited, but Priscilla very much displeased to the point where she kicks Bobby out.

    Gladys's players start a tour with Virginia Slims cigarettes sponsoring them, and they go out to get their hair done at a salon. Billie Jean meets her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), and it's clear that Billie Jean finds herself attracted to Marilyn. She cuts Billie Jean's hair to a shorter length, which she likes.

    Bobby is forced to attend a support group for gamblers. He ends up taking over the session and convinces the other attendees that they are simply terrible gamblers, and their losses brought them there. Bobby proceeds to get others involved in his gambling antics.

    While on tour in San Diego, Billie Jean is joined by Marilyn. After spending the night out at a nightclub, they return to Billie Jean's hotel room where they start to kiss and make love. Later that night, Bobby calls Billie Jean after trying every hotel in the area. He proposes a challenge to her in which they play a tennis match for $100,000, touting "the male chauvinist pig vs. the hairy-legged feminist". Billie Jean declines the challenge and hangs up on Bobby.

    Bobby then tries to challenge another player, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who knows what's going on between Billie Jean and Marilyn, and she knows that Billie Jean's sponsors would pull out if they found out she was in a relationship with another woman. Margaret accepts Bobby's offer should she beat Billie Jean in an upcoming match.

    Larry goes to the hotel to meet up with Billie Jean. He meets Marilyn in the elevator holding a bucket of ice, both unaware of each other's relation to Billie Jean. They both end up walking to Billie Jean's room, with Larry insinuating the ice bucket is for her knees. Marilyn lies and says it is before leaving. Larry enters the room and finds Marilyn's bra, and he pieces it together. He decides to stay at another hotel. He runs into Marilyn again outside, telling her that the two of them are just sideshows for Billie Jean since her true love is tennis, and if word got out over her and Marilyn, it would ruin her career.

    The next day, Billie Jean faces Margaret in a match. She is clearly off her game after what happened with Larry, and she loses the game. Margaret goes to the locker room to throw salt on the wound by saying she has "nothing to hide".

    Bobby and Margaret play their match, with Billie Jean, Gladys, and the other ladies watching on a TV screen. Bobby defeats Margaret in a big upset that is later referred to as the Mother's Day Massacre, and he proceeds to gloat about his victory. Seeing this as an insult to women, Billie Jean decides to take Bobby up on his challenge to shut him up for good.

    In the weeks leading up to the big match, Bobby does countless interviews and shoots to promote the chauvinist persona and gain more publicity. He spends time with his fellow tennis player and later coach Lornie Kuhle (Eric Christian Olsen) and a vitamin salesman named Rheo Blair (Fred Armisen) who puts Bobby on a regimen that involves him taking multiple pills per day.

    Meanwhile, Billie Jean works her hardest to prepare, but the pressure on her to win puts a great deal of stress on her, and she comes down with a flu. Gladys tells her to take some time off but to be fully prepared when the match comes.

    Bobby makes amends with Priscilla over his gambling habit, but she is still none too pleased over his talk of men being superior to women and his constant comments that women belong in the kitchen.

    The day of the match comes. Bobby wears a gaudy "Sugar Daddy" jacket and presents Billie Jean with a large lollipop. Billie Jean gives Bobby a piglet. All of Billie Jean's friends are in attendance, as is Larry and Marilyn, while Bobby's family watches at home, as does Jack. The match begins. Bobby appears to lead at first, but Billie Jean comes back strong by winning more games. Bobby's hand cramps up and he is forced to take off his jacket when he gets too hot. After a prolonged game, Billie Jean emerges as the champion. Bobby shakes Billie Jean's hand, and she goes to get her trophy.

    Billie Jean is in the locker room crying tears of joy. She heads out to face the press. Her stylist Ted (Alan Cumming) hugs her. Knowing about what she's gone through, he tells Billie Jean that someday they will be free to love who they want, but for now, she can enjoy her victory. Billie Jean walks out to a cheering crowd.

    The final text states that Billie Jean King eventually divorced Larry King and found her true love, Ilana Kloss. Larry remarried, with Billie Jean and Ilana becoming godparents to his children. Bobby and Priscilla Riggs remained happily married for the rest of their lives, and he never gave up gambling. Billie Jean became an advocate for LGBTQ rights and was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011. We also see some pictures of the real Billie Jean and Bobby during the events leading up to the match, with the last picture being the two of them together, smiling.

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