Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer

Put rebroadcast schedule in here.

The question is: is what you do more important than who you are? A related question: is it more important seek active social change in the world or can you be just as effective if you choose to be a secluded monk in the Greek countryside? The answer to the second question is easier. If your personality is best suited to being a cloistered monk, you’d probably make a terrible social activist. You are most effective if you choose the path that suits your soul. And many a burnout comes from the pursuit of activism out of a sense of duty rather than conviction.

The thing is, Billie Jean could have had it both ways. She had influenced huge social change and she then had a chance to square her personal life, her sexual preference, with her social activism. She chose to go, no jump back into the closet. It may well have been because she wanted to continue her social activism but I think she also didn’t want to give up her celebrity.

Make no mistake about it, the Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean’s tennis match with Bobby Riggs, was spectacle at its finest. It’s hard to forget the site of Billie Jean entering the match on a (??? how best to describe it) and giving Riggs, the quintessential public representative of macho, a baby pig. Billie Jean was a star. She’s made it all the way from a working class Long Beach to center stage and did not want to give that up.

You could say that Billie Jean chose celebrity and fame at the price of leading a lie in her personals life. The argument for that is that she affected a lot of people’s lives positively while being cruel to her husband, who is only one person.

The Bobby Riggs match was spectacle, and we like spectacle. We celebrate celebrities – people who make spectacle and are famous for one thing or another. We don’t celebrate a mand or a woman who pay their bills, have a good relationship with their family and lead an uneventful life.

It could be similar to being the child of a famous figure who is renowned in the world but might be a terribly family person. I’m sure we could find a number of celebrities who would fit that mold. I am the daughter of a famous person and I have immensely mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the fact that he was a consummate artist has inspired me greatly, on the other, he did not come and claim me but left me to be a foster child and then adopted by another family. He always provided financial support but it’s hard not to think that celebrity informed his choice, may have made it harder to be seen as having a daughter out of wedlock. (write a note to J. Druck about this – e.g., about being in la with a feed, “I’m so naive, aren’t I?”)

There are two intesting things in the HBO documentary titled Billie Jean King, Portrait of a Pioneer. Let’s start with the camera.

You might have noticed that Billie Jean looks straight at the camera as she speaks. If you didn’t, at least you experienced a feeling of intimacy missing in most documentaries. That’s because the producer, Margaret Grossi, used the interrotron, a technique developed by the brilliant filmmaker Errol Morris, to interview her subjects. Instead of looking off to the side of the camera at her interviewer, in this case Mary Carillo, Billie Jean looked at an image of Carillo’s face on a camera in front of her while Carillo was in another room.

With Billie Jean looking directly at you, it feels like she’s sitting down and having a conversation with you, the lowly, anonymous viewer. It’s kind of thrilling, I have to say.

Billie Jean has spoken about her life before but this is the first time she and her partner, Ilana Koss, have been willing to discuss their life together publicly. Billie Jean was ready to discuss the uncomfortable parts of her life, but sitting in a room by herself and looking at a camera instead of sitting a few feet away from a live person whose emotional and physical reactions might have inhibited her, made it that much easier. In a New York Times interview, Carillo said that she was visibly moved by Billie Jean’s revelations. You see the same thing in Morris’ films Mr. Death and The Fog of War. The subjects of those documentaries, Fred Leuchter and Robert McNamara, seem to be having a long coversation with themselves, the most intimate convesation there is, and you just happen to be watching.

The other interesting part of the documentary is the nature of the relationship between Billie Jean and her then husband Larry King as it played out against the social upheaval of the sixties and seventies. They married in 1965 while they were still in college but by the end of the sixties, Billie Jean knew that she was attracted to women.

The fifties and sixties were a phenomenally active time for social change. In 1963 alone, James Meredith was the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the first salvo in the current environmental movement, and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, credited with starting the feminist movement.

Billie Jean had a strong sense of social inequality as a young girl and it must have energized her immensely to see footage of marches and demonstrations and hear speeches from such leaders such as Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Gloria Steinem. Further complicating matters was that her husband was the feminist in the family. He was the one who pointed out to her that men had better tennis facilities than women and he was the one who sent her name to Steinem’s MS Magazine to put on a list of prominent women who admitted to having an abortion.

Billie Jean was in a real bind. Here she was the key figure in starting the first women’s tennis tour, Virginia Slims, and agitating for equal pay for women on in the slams, pushing for Title IX that forbids discrimination against women in any school that receives federal funds, and starting World Team Tennis, a version of tennis closer to her sensisiblity of cooperation and fan involvement, and she preferred women.

If she had come out as a lesbian, it not only meant she’d have to leave her husband and fellow activist, but it would greatly impair her effectiveness as a leader in social change. Her lesbianism would be the subject, not the things she wanted to change. Here she was married to someone who shared her vision

As it was, she finally had no choice in the matter. In the early seventies, she began a relationship with Marilyn Barnett. Barnett traveled with Billie Jean and in the HBO documentary, Chris Evert recounts a tournament where Larry King and Barnett both sat in the players’ box. Evert wondered how Billie Jean managed to stay married under the circumstances. Barnett brought a palimony suit against her in 1981 and the jig was up. Billie Jean lost her endorsements and suffered a lot of grief from the gay movement because she said that she regretted the affair. She later explained that she meant that she regretted the affair because she believed in monogamy but the gay community knew that her relationships with Barnett had lasted seven years, not exactly what you’d call an affair, and that Billie jumped even further into the back of the closet after the Barnett court case.

It would be hard to argue about the way Billie Jean handled her sexuality(yuck). She appeared on television with Larry’s arm around her and she also said that she and Larry were considering adoption in a last gasp attempt to repair the damage done by Barnett. That was the cruel behavior of a desperate person.

It was probably too much to ask her to be a lighting rod for the feminist movement, the women’s tour and the gay and lesbian movement. She made a decision that changing the world is more important than being honest about her sexual preference. Many people would argue that who you are is more important than what you do. That her duplicity and subterfuge about her personal relationships undermined her role as a champion for women.

Early in the HBO documentary she says, “A champion has GOT to say to themselves, I want the ball, no matter what, and be willing to be at high risk. You just gotta do it.” After Margaret Court lost to Bobby Riggs in the first battle of the sexes, that same attitude led Billie Jean to know immediately that she had to take Riggs on and beat him. It was critical to the work she was doing with the women’s tour and women’s sports.

That match was the symbolic victory

She was the prime mover in starting the first women’s tennis tour, the Virginia Slims, she was a key figure in agitating for the passage of Title IX, legislation that provided equal sports opportunities for women college students and forbids discrmination in any area at a school that received federal funds, she and Larry founded World Team Tennis, … She might not have been as effective if she had been out and now that our culture is less discriminatory against lesbians, she can talk about her experience openly.

It’s unfortunate, though, that for all the progress we’ve made, our definition of relationships hasn’t changed more. I have lived in relationships that were not based on sexual attraction. We lived together because we enjoyed each other’s company, learned from each other and respected each other. I was living with a former boyfriend as I went through the process of finding out that I was attracted to women. I eventually went to live a woman in New York but that former boyfriend is still one of my closest friends in the world. And I later lived with two women on and off for thirteen years in a very creative and enjoyable situation. Compare it to Simone De Beauvoire(sp?) and Jean Paul Sartre – a marriage of the minds.

[at end of article, “Oh yeah, Bi… Bud Collings Billie Jean King is the best player….]

[interesting to note that B.J. won two million dollars in her career, with 2o Wimbledon titles, 12 grand slam titles and 67 singles titles. That was a long time ago, of course, but Kim Clijsters won more than that at last year’s US Open after adding the bonus for winning the US Open Series. Clijsters should have donated 10% of it to the Women’s Sports Foundation (?), she owes it to Billie Jean.]

NY Times article, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/sports/tennis/25sandomir.html: ” But the impact of written words is different from that of videotaped recollections, especially in the way the documentary’s producer, Margaret Grossi, set up the interviews. She was inspired by Errol Morris, who, in “The Fog of War, ” did not speak face-to-face about the Vietnam War with Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary.
http://tennis.mostvaluablenetwork.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=417
Rather, McNamara spoke to Morris’s image on a monitor just below the camera. Similarly, Carillo sat behind a curtain, asking her questions, while King spoke to Carillo’s televised face.

The effect is to create a more intimate, one-on-one connection with the viewer. “I thought we’d be O.K. because Billie’s looking straight at us, telling us this and it is coming right from her mouth, ” said Grossi, who spent 13 years lobbying her bosses at HBO to make the King film.”

http://www.markorton.com/in_brief/Interrotron.htm, intervew with Morris about the interrotron. He uses this technique so the interviewee speaks to the camera. During the interview, the face on the camera in the interviewer, Mary Carillo in the Billie Jean doc, but when it is broadcast, the person being interviewed is looking right at the camera so it seems more intimate. I read some time time ago that Morris said that people sometimes feel freer to talk if they’re looking at a camera. It’s less inhibiting than if someone is sitting there in the room with you looking at you. You can read about the interrotron here: http://www.markorton.com/in_brief/Interrotron.htm

Announcer at Wimbledon 2005: “As player, promoter and innovator (a catchall term used in lieu of actually detailing everything she’s done from Team Tennis to the women’s tour itself), she’s done more to advanced the cause of women’s sports than any man or woman before or since.”

Number of wimbledon titles.

She could have been talking about Bobby Riggs: “A champion has GOT to say to themselves, I want the ball, no matter what, and be willing to be at high risk.” Risk of homophobia, risk of misogyny, …. “You just gotta do it.”

First I have give full disclosure. Billie Jean King is the greatest tennis player ever. Bud Collins, Russian doc, who’s the best player of all time? answer.

I’m tellin’ ya, I’m just in love with her. Her enthusiasm is moving to me.

She knew early on that she wanted to make the world a better place, given that she was a girl in the 50’s, that “unless I was number one, ” I wouldn’t be listened to. Compare that today with the young player who is at dinner with an IMG representative when they’re 10 or 12 years old. Compare that with young players who suffer abuse at the hands of pushy, exploitative parents who are paying ?? thousands of dollars a year for their child to attend a tennis academy.

First title, doubles, at age 17. Her partner, Karen Hantze Susman.

1966 Wimbledon final against Maria Bueno, she won it and became number one in the world. Larry King said that tennis at the time was “an activity you did until you got a real job.”

Is the documentary a good documentary: it’s pretty traditional in the visual cues it uses. Conversataion about burning bras, image of women burning bras.

Wimbledon 1968 finally went open, started playing open tennis, paying the winners, giving them prize money. Until then, players were paid under the table.

In the sixties and early seventies she also realized that she was interested in women, she was married to Larry King by now.
She couldn’t bring herself to accept her homosexuality, particularly in the homophobic atmosphere of the sixties and seventies and women’s open tennis was taking off. What was more important. Helping women get appropriate prize money or her own personal tumult. Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey and Rosie Casals approached Gladys Heldman, publisher(?) of the magazine World Tennis, about having a women’s tour. Nine players started the tour at the risk of being locked out of the USTA (tennis assoc.-the tennis assoc. at the time) tournaments, including Wimbledon, if they started their own tour.

The Virginia Slims Tour, had its start.

She’s gracious. “Chris Evert is the best thing that’s ever happened to women’s tennis.”

1971 US Open final (on grass) – Chris versus Billie Jean. Still, Billie Jean knew that if she lost to Chrissie, the Virginia Slims Tour might fail. Of course, she won. Two years later, Chrissie, who had not been on the tour, joined the tour.

Her husband, Larry King, entered her name on the list in MS magazine of women admitting that they’d had an abortion. Mr. King, always the feminist. She had an abortion because she knew she didn’t want to stay married to Larry King. Feminism = “equal opportunities for boys and girls”

Title 9: The idea of the legislation is that whatever the men get, the women get, sports and everything else. She was out as a feminist beyond the world of tennis.

How many Wimbledon and other titles total?

1972 Billie Jean King and John Wooden were sportswoman and sportsman of the year. First time for a woman. This was around the time she met Marilyn Barnett and had an affair. Barnett started traveling with her on tour. Even Chris Evert, who knew about Barnett, as everyone did, wondered how she and Larry managed to stay married to each other. Larry was either the epitome of the feminist we’d all love to be married to or in great denial. Though I have to say that I have been in relationships like that and was living with my boyfriend, who kind of wasn’t my boyfriend any more, when I started to date women. We were just together.

When the men created the ATP, it was originally a union for the players. They didn’t, of course, invite the women, so you know that Billie Jean spearheaded a women’s union and the WTA was born. If you don’t get it by now, The Virginia Slims Tour, Title 9, the WTA, well, how about Team Tennis?

1973 Wimbledon Final, going for her fifth straight. Billie Jean won singles, mixed doubles and women’s doubles. Also, that year, she played Bobby Riggs. $100, 000 winner take all.

In the documentary, Anna…. Bud Collins is asked who is the best player of all time. “No question, ”(?) he says, “Billie Jean King.” He speaks the truth. If you want to know why, watch the documentary, Billie Jean King, …Pioneer. The rebroadcast schedule is below.

The documentary is pretty straightforward stuff. Then Billie Jean mentions women burning bras, of course we see an image of
..there isn’t anything here we didn’t know before. The difference is that Billie Jean is willing to sit down and talk about what she was going through, including her difficulty in dealing with being a lesbian. One thing is slightly different about this doc. The filmmakers (???), use the technique pioneered by [links]Errol Morris in his documentaries. He calls it an interrotron. Instead of….

Billie Jean, then, is looking at a camera with the face of her interviewer, Mary Carillo. Carillo is not in the room. This has two effects. The first is that you get the sense that Billie Jean is talking to you, Mary Carillo becomes our stand-in. The second is that people are sometimes more comfortable talking when no one is in the room. It seems to give them the freedom to talk on beyond what they might if someone is sitting there in front of them in the room.

Chris Evert is very entertaining. She says that she was such an idiot in those days. She looks at the camera and say, “I’ve changed, ” and we believe it.

When you see her lift up the trophy after beating Bobby Riggs, you remember her opening comment. “A champion has to step up…..” After everything she’s done, and I told you, I’m a complete Billie lover, this is what I most respect about her. In an era where Michael Jordan refuses to say anything that will offend an endorser and Tiger Woods takes only the tiniest step when he could be very influential about the women’s issue at Augusta, Michael and Tiger stepped up when they had to on the court and on the course, but Billie Jean stepped up on and off the court.

Women’s Sports Foundation, did Billie Jean found this? “change attitude towards girls and women in sports.” Elton John appears in a suit with a flower embroidered on it and the fattest, most opulent cross I think I’ve ever seen. If you think that Billie Jean is staid behind those glasses, check out the footage of her shaking her butt and bouncing up and down on Elton John’s piano in the middle of one of his concerts. She performed as a backup singer for Elton John. Priceless.

Then there was World Team Tennis. Men and women’s results counted equally and it was city versus city, like other major sports on the US.

!978 doubles final with Navratilova was her 20th Wimbledon title, a record, and Navratilova was happy to help someone who’d paved the way for her.

In 1979?? Marily Barnett outed Billie Jean King, King hadn’t seen her since 1973, what was the point. This is the one area where Billie wasn’t forthcoming. She called Larry her lover and husband. The footage of Billie Jean looking lovingly at Larry King though she knew long before that she didn’t want to be married to him and also the fact that she suggested that (not in the doc) they were going to adopt, was completely misleading.

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