Emma Stone and Steve Carell are at the top of their game in Battle of the Sexes, a funny and gripping retelling of the famed tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
With the film serve-and-volleying its way into cinemas on 24th November, we rewind the clock to 1973 to reveal the incredible true story of how two tennis players – one female, one male – brought the sporting world to a standstill…
The Political Climate and the Build-up...
The 1973 tennis match between leading women’s player Billie Jean King (aged 29) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (aged 55) not only helped change tennis, but also the political and cultural landscape in the United States, and even the way women in America were perceived.
At the time, the Vietnam War was raging and a woman’s place was very much in the home. Those who did work earned half as much as their male colleagues – even if they did the same job. In most aspects of US society women were still treated as second-class citizens.
When tennis great and high-profile activist Billie Jean King was challenged to a match by opinionated chauvinist Bobby Riggs, King knew she had to agree to his request to show what women could do.
Following Riggs’ proclamation that no female could possibly beat him, Margaret Court – the then women’s number one – took him up on his challenge and lost in straight sets.
With Riggs crowing like, well a crow, King stepped up and the media went into overdrive, dubbing their winner takes all showdown as the “Battle of the Sexes”.
At a time when the United States was undergoing tremendous upheaval, Billie Jean King was facing her own turmoil. Although in a happy marriage to Larry King since 1964, the multiple grand slam winner had developed feelings for her secretary, Marilyn Barnett.
But homosexuality was still very much frowned upon and King feared that any public announcement – or even speculation – would be the death knell for the women’s tennis association she was trying so hard to develop.
In Battle of the Sexes the part of Billie Jean King is played by Academy Award winner Emma Stone, who put on 15 pounds of muscle for the role. As part of her preparation, the La La Land star spent a great deal of time with King, and was impressed by her indomitable spirit.
“From an early age, I think Billie Jean was driven by these larger ideas of effecting change in the world and she saw tennis as her vehicle to make that happen because she was so great at it,” Stone theorises. “You have to remember it was looked down upon for a woman to even be an athlete when she was young – especially an aggressive women’s tennis player. From the start, she knew she was fighting for something bigger than herself.”
Often seen as the ‘baddie’ of the piece, there’s actually a lot more to Bobby Riggs than meets the eye. For starters, he was a tremendous player in his own right, winning both Wimbledon and the US Open in his prime.
After retiring from tennis he turned to gambling and hustling, and it was this love of money (as well as rumoured Mob debts) that led him to claim that women’s tennis was inferior and that no female player could beat him. He knew his sexist behaviour (which was largely exaggerated) would draw attention and, more importantly, cash – and it did.
Bobby Riggs is played by Steve Carell in the film, an Oscar-nominee and star of such movies as Foxcatcher, The Big Short and Anchorman. Attracted by Riggs’ larger-than-life persona and channelling his own memories of the event, the actor was determined to play the former tennis world number one as more than just a pantomime villain or egocentric clown.
“Even as an 11-year-old I could distinguish between the act and the person… you knew that it was just a performance. Bobby enjoyed getting people riled up and that was part of his charm.”
Following weeks of fevered coverage, the match finally took place on 20 September 1973, surrounded by the kind of spectacle and pageantry more associated with Caesar’s Palace or the Colosseum than a starched game of tennis.
A colossal 90 million people tuned in – the biggest television audience since the Moon landing. Who won? You’ll have to book your ODEON ticket to find out, but let’s just say that it’s an epic gender clash to rival Kramer versus Kramer and Hillary versus Trump.
With smashing performances from Stone and Carell and an ace of a script by the Oscar-winning Simon Beaufoy (writer of The Full Monty and the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire), Battle of the Sexes is as impressive as Roger Federer or Serena Williams in full flight.
Part sports movie, part love story, part sociopolitical drama, this is a film that succeeds on every level. Another gong for Stone? Very possibly. And Carell, Beauford and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris could well be joining her on the Academy stage.
So, anyone for tennis?