Portrait of a Pioneer: a Billie Jean King Documentary

Billie Jean King: Portrait of a PioneerBillie Jean King

In one scene from the HBO documentary Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer, the young tennis star prances and hops around stage during a concert by good friend Elton John. Back then King wore giant cat-eye glasses, and they nearly upstage John's as she claps, stomps and leans into the mic —“singing back-up,” as she recalls.

At several points during the 60-minute biopic King can be seen whooping it up with abandon, particularly in her early days of dominating women's tennis. She covers the entire court with her characteristically high-energy serve-and-volley game. She throws her racket and rides an invisible pogo stick upon winning a match. She generally exudes enthusiasm while those around her appear to reserve theirs for a later time.

King displays a range of emotions in the introspective commentary she provides throughout the film. There is no narrator for the movie, so mostly we get King telling her own story. Several of her immediate family members weigh in, including her parents, her brother, and her ex-husband Larry King (not the one affiliated with CNN)—who, like Billie, is especially frank. We also hear a bit from her partner of 20 years, former tennis pro Ilana Kloss, who didn't talk publicly about their relationship until two years ago.

The movie traces the story of this tomboy from a working-class family in Long Beach, California, who rose to the top in an elite sport and revolutionized women athletics along the way. Vivid images and commentary bring the details of her activism and accolades to life. The strident supporter of women's rights talks about being steered away from touch-football as a young girl, eventually turning to the more ladylike sport of tennis. She recalls her surprise when she learned that the shorts she and her mates wore on the public courts were off-limits for girls wishing to compete in this sport.

Present-day interviews as well as archival footage and photographs recount the consequential milestones in King's life. But the movie also doles out enough tidbits about her personal life to delight viewers without becoming tabloid-y.

We get to see a chubby teenaged King sporting a toothy grin and hugging a koala in a photo taken during the four months she spent in Australia perfecting her game. And we get to hear King reveal that Kloss was an 11-year-old ball girl and King a 23-year-old superstar when the two first met. (They didn't take up together until after they met again, when Kloss herself was 23.)

Appropriately so, the movie mainly focuses on King's storied career. She retired from professional tennis in 1983 after racking up 39 Grand Slam titles in 15 years. In 1971 she became the first female athlete, in any sport, to pass the $100,000 mark for prize money earned. In 1973 she won the battle for equal prize money at the U.S. Open and beat out Golda Meir as the woman most admired by the readers of Seventeen magazine.

We also learn about King's fight for gender parity in sports as a whole, her instrumental role in the passage of Title IX, and her push to end sex discrimination in tennis. The movie chronicles how she organized a group of women players to break away from the tennis establishment and form their own tour, sponsored by cigarette manufacturer Virginia Slims.

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