Portrait of a Pioneer: a Billie Jean King Documentary

One of the most rewarding aspects of the movie is hearing King speak so candidly about her insecurities, her accomplishments, her fears and her sexuality. She talks about being outed in 1981, while still married to her husband, when a woman with whom she'd had an affair eight years prior mounted an unsuccessful palimony suit. King admits that she was actually fearful of her “controlling and manipulative” former lover, and refers to the suit as “emotional and financial blackmail.” She also talks about how depressed and hopeless she felt during that time—when she lost millions in endorsements just as she was planning to retire—despite the brave face she mustered for the public.

Throughout the film King and her ex-husband exhibit a mutual fawning that seems genuine. He says, “I don't regret a day I spent with her. I don't think anybody does,” and she credits him with turning her into a feminist when they were in college by pointing out the discrimination she faced as a woman. The filmmakers also include balanced footage of the former spouses presenting their respective sides on serious disagreements, such as one about the public disclosure of an abortion Billie had during their marriage.

Highlights of the film include vivid commentary provided by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. At one point a magnanimous Navratilova even manages to steal some of the credit while praising King's record-breaking 20th title win, which was secured when King and Navratilova teamed up in doubles.

The movie also provides the backstory on the circus-like “Battle of the Sexes,” the 1973 match between King and Bobby Riggs that was televised worldwide. King won in straight sets, a milestone victory for women's sports. The movie shows how King felt obligated to engage Riggs in his challenge and pressured herself to win, fearing that a loss would damage her larger cause.

The viewer is treated to footage of King arriving at the historic match in Vegas-style grandeur, including a blue-sequined tennis shirt. We also see her hand Riggs a baby pig, a pre-match psych-out gift for the notorious chauvinist on par with the Mother's Day flowers he had given Margaret Court before beating her in the original “Battle of the Sexes” match.

Portrait paints King as the ultimate good sport, gracious toward Riggs and remaining friends with him until his death. It also shows that she understood the need to sell women's tennis to the public and managed to do so without losing her integrity. When her contemporaries snubbed rising star Evert, King recognized that the demure newcomer was not only a talented competitor but the perfect cover-girl to increase support for women's tennis.

Like many a documentary, Portrait of a Pioneer features an extended denouement, including a photo montage accompanied by schmaltzy music that starts out poignant then swells triumphantly. But if you can forgive that cliche you'll enjoy a biography that captures the complexity of an outspoken leader and legendary athlete in fresh detail.

Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer airs April 26 on HBO.

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