'The Battle of the Sexes' :: Billie Jean King and Emma Stone Winning the Game

by Joel Martens

Rage Monthly

Saturday October 7, 2017

Forty-four years ago, in 1973, things were very different for many in this country. Though the Equal Rights Amendment banning discrimination based on sex was passed by Congress on March 22, 1972, women were still battling their way out from under an oppressive patriarchy that didn't want them to change... at all.

That was the moment Billie Jean King burst onto the world's stage as a

29-year-old female tennis champion, a woman who would go on to win 39

Grand Slam titles during her playing career spanning 1966 to 1980. Though she was a world-class player, as were many of her teammates, things were still not easy or equitable within the male-dominated sports world and certainly not part of the of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to which they belonged.

Frustrated also by the vast pay gap that existed between men and women tennis pros, King and what would become known as "the original nine," of her team mates -- Americans Rosemary Casals, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman as well as Australians Kerry Melville Reid and Judy Tegart Dalton -- would break ranks with the USTA and forming the Women's Tennis Association in 1973, which is still the central core of women's professional tennis today. They took it a further step, along with "World Tennis" magazine publisher Gladys Heldman, when they signed one dollar contracts, creating the first Virginia Slims Tour, bucking the wishes of USTA even more, who would threaten to ban them from all Grand Slam events -- something that they would eventually back away from under intense pressure.

King worked tirelessly to promote the new league and to bring awareness to the disparity and sexism she and other women felt, both on and off the court. The best example possible of that oppressive behavior and attitude, was found in a 55-year-old, male former tennis champion by the name of Bobby Riggs. A tireless self-promoter and consummate performer, Riggs regularly and loudly opined publicly regarding his feelings about "uppity women," and how even as pros they didn't deserve the same pay as men, simply because, in his opinion, they didn't play as well.

Riggs' endless chauvinistic commentary and continuous challenges to prove he could easily win were bolstered by his win against star player Margaret Court. A win that would eventually spur King, who had declined Riggs' invitations up until then, to accept his challenge. A decision that would help to move the tennis world forward, define a generation and change women's sports forever and add to the retooling of many of the day's social morays.

"Battle of the Sexes" was the term applied to the match Riggs and King would eventually play, which was watched by a record 90 million around the globe and attended by 30,472 inside the Houston Astrodome, still the record for the largest crowd at a tennis match. A spectacle to be sure, it featured Riggs, ladened with Sugar Daddies logos, entering the arena aboard a rickshaw pulled by tight-T-shirted female models, followed by King, carried in on a litter born by bare-chested men.

Billie Jean King routed Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in a game that would attain mythical status, spawning several books, television films and now, 44 years later, a major motion picture starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Robert Larimore Riggs.

King and Stone spoke with The Rage Monthly about the match, the film and the key players.

Stone talked of what it was like to prepare and how she balanced spending time with King and how she managed her time with the tennis star. "I had never played a real person before, much less someone like Billie Jean, so I wasn't sure what my process was going to need to be. Billie Jean made

it very clear early on that she would be open to whatever process we kind of needed to go through in order to bring this whole thing to fruition. We threw some balls around on the tennis court and then I quickly realized that I needed to watch footage from her during the time period and read a lot about her back then, because she is so fully formed now. She is able to talk about all of it, with closure and hindsight and can see it more clearly than she might have been able to at age 29. So, I ended up just doing a lot of research on her just in that very specific time frame."

Stone talked about what it took to preparing physically for the role. "I have never played tennis and am not particularly good at tennis. (Laughs)

I had a lot of lessons and I had an incredible professional double named Kaitlyn Christian, who was phenomenal and an amazing coach, Vincent Spadea, as well as a great trainer who was bulking me up. I was surrounded by a team of massive support when it came to that element. So much of the story was about her personal journey and experience, but if this had been the Billie Jean tennis match movie, I would have never gotten the part." (Laughs)

"King was a social activist, she was basically wired for social change and new that from a young age," Stone continued. "She knew what had to change, but she also knew that if she could be the best at tennis, that it was going to be an amazing platform for her and she could change the world. Physicality has everything to do with that. If you have the strength do to that in tennis, you can change other things, even the world. That was an amazing thing to discover, to understand that physical strength can equal strength out in the world, when trying to further equality. I know that may sound a little crazy, but I really did start to put those pieces together and it was super empowering and felt good."

Billie Jean King talked about the role her then-husband, Larry King (no, not the talk show host) played in her willingness to take on changing the game of tennis. "Larry and I always talked about social changes from the '60s on. It was actually at Cal State Law Library where we first started talking about how we wanted to change tennis. He and I were very much in it together. There's a scene when we're forming the WTA and Larry has all these

papers sitting on the desk. It was really important to me that was in there because those were the bylaws." She went on to explain, "He was a lawyer and he was able to get the bylaws ready before we had that meeting so we could elect the officers and actually have an association. Larry did that all before we had that meeting and that made a huge difference."

The bigger picture regarding social change was always a part of King's motivation, including the race disparity. "That's one of the things we were

trying to do as well. If you notice in the "Battle of the Sexes," that's how white everything really was. I think we had two people of color in the audience." Stone added, "That is what they were fighting for, those moments for the next generation and onward. To have moments like that. I can only imagine what it feels like for Billie Jean to watch the young girl who just won the U.S. open get presented with 3.7 million dollars, it's just got to be incredible."

"You never really know how you're going to touch another person's life or how they will touch yours as you go through life. It's important to pay attention to those moments," said King. "You don't want to disrupt anything if you can, you really just want to make things better for everyone whenever possible. You are always on a tightrope because you are trying to get everyone's hearts and minds to match up. Once you alienate someone, they go away and that becomes a very, very difficult thing. Trust me, it's just not fun, it's really not fun at all. So, you always want to do everything you can

behind the scenes first. Don't go to the media unless it's an absolute last resort. Just try to get everyone to do the right thing."

There's a poignant scene in the film after the King vs. Riggs match is played and King wins, it is so emotionally powerful, and Stone plays the pivotal moment beautifully. She talked of preparing for it. "I had been thinking about that particular moment throughout the entire film. It was all right there, just under the surface throughout the whole film, that sort of breaking point. You have to earn that moment, finally seeing everything that was happening under the surface at that particular time. She was on four hours of sleep every night, all of the stuff was going on with Marilyn, with her husband, Larry, all of that, you just sit in the overwhelm of that. Then in that moment, just after winning, it all comes crashing in. It was a pivotal moment to me, certainly one for me as an actor, to know this is what we had been building to."

King added, "I thought that Emma portrayed the feeling of that moment one hundred percent accurately. I did not have the opportunity to do it exactly that way, but it is exactly how I felt. She captured it so beautifully, it was so touching when I saw it. The feeling was so authentic with what was in my heart at that moment in time."

Besides tennis, Billie Jean King has made great strides on many fronts. In particular, she along with Martina Navratilova have been such incredible LGBT icons. There was disparity in how they were treated before being out was something you could do, it was a constant challenge. "I can tell you just in general, when we were playing back then, the women were always asked about their sexuality, and the men never were. Right there it's more secretive, and you don't have to keep facing the barrage of questions about it." When asked why King thought it's still so hard for men, particularly in sports to "Live their truths," she offered this: "It's the last bastion of machismo and it just scares the death out of the guys because of how they're going to be treated by their fellow players. That is really important, through your profession, it's like a family. I think being your authentic self is really just difficult when it's still so shame based. The LGBTQ community suffers a lot because of it. Even our trans, especially our young kids have 40 percent more suicides than any other group. That's why it's so important to embrace everyone. Their authentic self is so important, we want to encourage that as much as we can."

See this film, learn something about how we got to where we are now. There is still work to be done, yes, but because of this moment and many others, we have come so very far.

Battle of the Sexes is in theaters now. Check your local listings for

locations and times.

Copyright Rage Monthly. For more articles from Rage visit www.ragemonthly.com