“The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot.”
“I don’t mind being called a male chauvinist pig as long as I’m the No. 1 male chauvinist pig.”
Sound like things Ron Burgundy might say? Close. Those were the choice quips of Bobby Riggs, the 1970s tennis hustler who baited top women pros into a series of lucrative “Battle of the Sexes” matches. In 1973, he famously lost to Billie Jean King in straight sets during a carnival-stunt spectacular that seems extremely ridiculous in hindsight but had enormous cultural implications at the time.
Riggs was undeniably a character, and the announcement that Will Ferrell is attached to star in a movie about the ballyhooed Riggs/King match is welcome news for Ferrell fans. Variety reported that the star, Adam McKay, and Peter Chermin Entertainment will produce a film, based on last year’s ESPN article, “The Match Maker,” which looked into Riggs’ underworld gambling connections and speculated on whether he purposely threw the big match.
While Ferrell has played a long list of jock jerks in his outrageous comedies, Riggs would presumably be a dramatic role, albeit one that plays to the actor’s many strengths. In fact, Match Maker, as the film is titled, might be one of the most promising sports movies and one of the most promising Will Ferrell movies in years.
First, some historical background. Riggs was a legendary player in his prime, but his prime was the 1940s. He was always a hustler, though, and in his 50s, as the feminist movement gained steam, he saw an opportunity to make a buck. He challenged the top female players, insulted them, belittled them, and then clobbered Margaret Court, the world’s No. 1 player in straight sets. Billie Jean King picked up the sword, accepted Riggs’ challenge, and their $100,000 winner-take-all match at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 was a huge media event. The social worldview at the time, especially in light of Riggs’ dismantling of Court, was that a savvy 55-year-old man could beat a 29-year-old female champion – essentially because women would crack under pressure. Well, King turned the tables, giving as good as she got in the build-up to the event, and then running Riggs all over the court in three straight sets. She proved that the wheezing chauvinist pig had no clothes – or wind, or lob, or second serve.
Tennis is an international game, with millions of knowledgeable weekend players who appreciate the game, but there’s not a great tradition of tennis movies, which is a shame. Wimbledon? Players? Match Point? The “Cleveland Wins the Pennant!” scene in Bachelor Party? Pathetic. We’re talking about a broad sports-movie landscape that features superior movies about golf, figure skating, and auto racing, and tennis is treated worse than dodgeball.
Visually speaking, perhaps a tennis match can be made to look numbingly repetitive – but look at the number of compelling tennis documentaries in recent years, including ESPN’s own Riggs/King “Outside the Lines” special, and HBO’s doc about the rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. The stories and characters are there, just waiting for the right actors and filmmakers.
Match Maker could be that spark that finally gets the ball bouncing. Perhaps finding an actor who has game on the court has been a difficult hurdle to clear in previous film attempts, but the promising thing about Riggs is that Ferrell doesn’t have to transform himself into Rafael Nadal to look the part. Heck, he’s in perfect Riggs shape right now – and I say that blindly. Ferrell is already a good athlete who enjoys playing tennis, and Riggs will be a character where being mildly outrageous will be expected. Casting King might be slightly more complicated – basically because they’d need an actress who can beat a man like Ferrell, and c’mon, that’s just crazy talk! Seriously, I’m privately praying that Maggie Gyllenhaal has a backhand, so we can reunite the fiesty couple from Stranger Than Fiction. No doubt she could put Ferrell-as-Riggs in his place.