Athlete, feminist, GLBT activist, heroine. “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer” traces the cool-headed and tenacious path of one of America’s revolutionary leaders. On the tennis court, Billie Jean King, pictured, holds a remarkable record of 20 Wimbledon titles. Off the court, she revolutionized sports for women and became a symbol for gender equality demanding equal prize money and organizing a union for women players, which ultimately became the Women’s Tennis Association.
Weaving terrific footage, archival photos and interviews, King chronicles her life. So do her family and friends, including Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Elton John, Frank Deford, life partner Ilana Kloss and ex-husband Larry King.
King was so busy trying to level the playing field for women and fighting for equal rights, she often put aside her personal needs. The documentary does an effective job of putting her private life in perspective. After beating Bobby Riggs, King was at the top of her game and even had a hit theme song: Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom.” And then in 1981, the tennis icon was outed when former female lover and longtime secretary, Marilyn Barnett, filed an extortive palimony suit. The tennis champion lost all her endorsements.
It took a while, but King eventually became a champion again for gays and lesbians. This summer, King is an ambassador for the Gay Games VII in Chicago.
Premieres April 26 at 9 p.m. on HBO
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 21, 2006.