While tackling her role as tennis pro Billie Jean King, who battled opponent Bobby Riggs in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes,” Emma Stone acquired 15 pounds of muscle, and a understanding of the multidimensional power of competition
by Matt Scanlon
Economists and sociologists are accustomed to tracking changes in tiny increments—a percentage uptick of employment here, a fractionally more diversified governmental sector there, which makes comparing women’s place in society today with that of 1973 seem almost incredible in its disparities.
Among them was the fact that the percentage of women in executive, administrative, and managerial positions in 1973 was significantly less than half of today’s, and that women in all professions earned 60% of a man’s salary in that earlier year, a figure that has risen to approximately 77%. In short, women’s station 44 years ago was a shadow of today’s, however far society still has to go.
For women in sports, the situation was arguably even worse; in 1973, there had been no women’s Olympic basketball gold in 1984, no Shirley Muldowney to break drag racing’s ranks, no WNBA, no United States versus China World Cup soccer win in 1999, and certainly no Venus and Serena Williams breaking all manner of records in professional tennis. Efforts to address discrimination against women generally, though gathering steam in 1972 after the passing of Federal Title IX and amidst a refreshed Equal Rights Amendment movement (which would ultimately fail), were, however, met with inquisitional rage on the part of many, including a number of prominent women (“My analysis is that the gays are about 5% of the attack on marriage in this country, and feminists are about 95%,” quipped political activist Phyllis Schlafly at the time).
It was in this gender-fraught environment that “The Battle of the Sexes” took place—a $100,000 winner-take-all exhibition match between 55-year-old former world number one professional tennis player Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old pro tennis player Billie Jean King. Held in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome in front of 30,500 (a record for any tennis event that still stands), and with an estimated 90 million people viewing around the globe, the match was won by King in three sets and is considered a milestone in the appreciation of women in sports. (King, the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, is now 73 and still an active spokeswoman for gender rights; Riggs died in 1995 at the age of 77.)
The September 22-released Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs—and directed in tandem by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (who also co-directed Little Miss Sunshine)—is an attempt to re-create this pivotal contest, and co-stars Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, and Elisabeth Shue.
It delves into game-play minutia, to be sure, but also provides a personal portrait of the players, including the struggles that King—a famously private person—experienced as her sexuality was dragged into the limelight. “Billie Jean often pointed out that pressure is a privilege,” semi-spectacularly as a businessman. The challenge for Battle of the Sexes screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, then, was to offer an account of him that was balanced—at once honest and understanding.
“The match was watched by the largest TV audience since the moon landing,” said Beaufoy ( The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire), who spent many hours with King during writing preparation. “Yet [it was] almost a sideshow to the bigger battle that raged in America: man versus woman. What surprised me most was [King’s] affection for Bobby. She wasn’t really battling him, a man she actually liked, as much as she was battling a belief system that men were simply better than women.”
“Bobby created this persona as a male chauvinistic pig, knowing that it would get him back in the public eye,” observed co-director Faris. “I think he hoped that it was going to be the beginning of a new career. We weren’t interested in portraying Bobby or anyone as a simple villain.”
For Stone, the role was unlike any other, compounded by the fact that she had virtually no background in the sport, and had “barely held a racquet.” Part of the preparation, then, was an intensive four-month training program.
“We knew we could never raise Emma’s tennis game to Billie Jean’s level, but our hope was to capture King’s physicality,” Dayton explained. “She transformed her body, putting on 15 pounds of muscle.”
The transformation had its psychological components as well.
“The more time I spent with her, the more I understood that she has a beautiful outlook,” Stone said. “Being with her is like being with a 15-year-old kid who is excited by the whole world in front of them and believes great things can happen at any moment… The effect it had on Billie’s life, on society and on sports was immense. I think she did feel the weight of knowing she was representing the entire women’s movement and that made her even more passionate about the game.”