'Battle of the Sexes'
Reaches Far Beyond Tennis
Nina Pantic | October 2, 2017
The Battle of the Sexes took place in 1973 between world No. 1 Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs. The match, and its unparalleled significance, may be familiar to you, but the whole story hasn’t quite been told – until now. Enter the tennis' latest foray into Hollywood, aptly titled "Battle of the Sexes" and starring an A-list cast.
Emma Stone, who plays King, won an Oscar this year for "La La Land." The 28-year-old is a vastly experienced actress, and yet, this marks the first time she has ever portrayed a real, living person.
“Never having played a real person before and then playing Billie Jean King is really an interesting thing to wrap your head around,” Stone said. “That's why I wanted to do it – it was because she is who she is. I found this story so moving and so inspiring and human. ADVERTISEMENT She's accomplished great things, but she's also faced adversity and gone through so much in her life.”
The film, which also stars Steve Carell as Riggs, Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, Alan Cummings as Ted Tinling, and Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett, explores topics of equality, women’s rights and sexuality.
Many of those names will be familiar to the tennis world, but it’s the lesser-known Barnett who steals the film’s main storyline. She plays King’s hairdresser, and first-ever female love interest.
Stone had to learn how to play tennis with hours of practice, but she didn’t let that kind of training apply to her raw relationship with Barnett.
“At least in our story, this was a newer feeling. This was all happening. This was so brand new,” Stone said. “I wanted to experience that newness, that discovery, without the benefit of retrospect and what that meant.”
The film, directed by wife-and-husband duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, also does a deep dive into the world of Riggs, a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig and a gambling addict. Carell plays up the role to empathic aplomb, and yet, despite his role as the antagonist, Riggs’ relationship with King comes off as deeply rooted in respect.
“That's something Billie Jean has made clear. I knew that from the beginning that she had so much respect for Bobby,” Stone said. “That they had spoken right before he died and obviously this was a lasting – on whatever level it was – friendship. A mutual respect certainly. This is two people struggling with different things at the same time.”
King’s many complex relationships are the core of the film, while the overarching theme is the fight for women’s equality. She became the first female athlete to win $100,000. She, and the other eight women in the Original Nine, boycotted the existing pro tour because they were winning one-eighth of the prize money of the men. Putting their careers at risk in the 1970s is the reason Sloane Stephens won $3.7 million, just like men's champion Rafael Nadal, at this year’s US Open.
“We had all the stars in alignment to make it happen for us. It was a lot of luck,” King said. “You had nine of us who were foolish enough to say we were going to go for it and we don't care if we ever play again in a tournament. So we crossed the line in the sand on that.”
“To be on top and to say I don't care if I ever play again,” Stone said. “That's crazy.”
Stone is right – it was crazy. But it worked, and so did King’s straight-set win over Riggs.
King and Stone giggle like schoolchildren when they’re in a room together, interrupting each other and cracking jokes like lifelong friends, despite a 45-year age difference.
It's obvious that even at 73, King is still building and nurturing every relationship in front of her. She’s still just as inspiring as the day she beat Riggs in front of 90 million people, but has remained incredibly humble, with a innate habit of putting the attention on others. Somehow, despite all that she’s accomplished, the greatest pioneer in women’s sports history still can’t believe anyone wanted to make a film about her life.
“Somebody comes up to you and says they're going to do a movie on you. Come on, just think about your own selves,” King said. “I was overwhelmed from the very beginning. I'm still overwhelmed. I really don't understand it yet.
“I think I'm very blessed and talking about the times we have right now, I hope it's relevant. I think it'll carry on discussions and dialogue, and maybe it'll help. I just really want it to count and hopefully make a positive difference.”
Nina Pantic is a staff writer for Tennis.com. To read the full article on Tennis.com, click here.