Feminist causes a ‘racquet’
1970s gender debate heats up between rivals on tennis court
COMEDIAN Sarah Silverman takes a more serious turn in her new film, Battle of the Sexes.
She stars opposite Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the biographical drama, which chronicles the true story of the 1973 tennis match between world number one Billie Jean King (Stone) and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell).
In this Q&A, the self-confessed tennis fan talks about playing Gladys Heldman, a no-nonsense pioneer of the sport.
Q: How did you get involved with the film?
A: (The directors) Jonathan and Valerie liked the idea of me playing Gladys. It’s a great story and as relevant today as ever. Also, I look amazing in ’70s clothes!
Q: Can you explain the premise of the film from your perspective and Billie Jean’s journey?
A: Billie Jean didn’t set out to be a feminist icon, she became one by being undeniably great in her field and demanding equality. When Billie Jean and Gladys got together and realised that the US Lawn Tennis Association was paying women one-eighth of what men were being paid, even though they would sell the same amount of tickets, they told them to shove it – which was quite brave. Gladys and Billie Jean stood up to them and took a chance. Gladys secured Virginia Slims sponsorship for a women’s tour and their own championship, with fair pay.
Q: While the women were fighting for equality, Bobby Riggs was trying to put the clock back, wasn’t he?
A: Yes, at this time Bobby Riggs was a washed-up tennis star and compulsive gambler who exploited this moment by challenging Billie Jean King – the best player there was – to a match. Bobby Riggs had been a big tennis star before Billie Jean’s time. He was a cocky, male chauvinist pig and a clown, who was also a very good tennis player. Billie Jean was loathe to indulge in the match, because of the risk of making her beloved tennis into a sideshow, but she saw the importance of playing and she took the risk.
Q: Are you a tennis fan?
A: I love tennis and I’ve played my whole life. I remember seeing Rosie Casals in Boston, so it was very cool to have scenes in the film with that character (played by Natalie Morales).
Q: Can you discuss your character, Gladys, and what you learned about her?
A: Gladys Heldman was deeply involved in the tennis community; she played tennis herself in her 20s and 30s. Tennis was her life and her passion and she was a very ‘no nonsense’ woman, she didn’t like things that weren’t fair. She was also a big personality – a pistol. And she always carried a gun in her purse! She was someone who simply didn’t follow the traditional idea of ‘a woman’s place’ that society had pounded into everyone around her. She was a force to be reckoned with and she was as unaccepting of inequality in 1972 as any millennial is today (and that is in part because of Gladys Heldman’s influence). I was able to meet her daughter, Julie, one of the Original Nine, which was really helpful.