The challenge by former male tennis champ Bobby Riggs to female No.1 Billie Jean King put gender equality on front pages everywhere
Women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen. It was the declaration from former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, delivering a wildly controversial challenge to Billie Jean King, who dominated tennis in the 1970s, with the assertion that no woman, not even the best, would have the strength and skill to defeat him.
The outrageous comments from the 55-year-old former champion provoked an immediate backlash.
King, 29, decided to accept the challenge and the battle got underway.
The engrossing new film from directing couple Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton examines the events leading up to the match, as the global publicity hoopla, initiated by Riggs, rapidly accelerated.
“It was circus-like, enormous, it was the first time that there had been so much hype around a televised sporting event,” says Emma Stone, who won the Best Actress Oscar for La La Land and delivers an uncannily powerful and nuanced performance as Billie Jean King. “Billie Jean and Bobby were on the covers of magazines and newspapers, so the whole world was watching. It was like the sporting world’s version of the moon landing!”
“We make a movie about every five years,” says Dayton, explaining the draw of the story, while sitting down in LA with Faris. “We felt this was a subject worthy of the trust that an audience puts in us as filmmakers.”
That well-earned trust led Faris and Dayton into deeply emotional territory.
With a screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire), the film immerses the audience in all the excitement surrounding the landmark match. On the one hand, Riggs, played with panache and sensitivity by Steve Carell, was a bastion of male chauvinism and prejudice, (at least that was the public image he projected).
At the other end of the spectrum was King, the No.1 tennis player. It was a time when the women’s movement was gaining momentum, and by taking on her opponent, King was championing equality across the board, galvanising women who were sick and tired of being treated like second-class citizens.
As the excitement mounted, both tennis stars were thrust into the limelight.
“Actually, I wasn’t surprised,” says Billie Jean King, who was a consultant on the film. “It was a perfect storm in a way. I knew that at the height of the women’s movement, this was big: ‘Man versus Woman’.
“It played into the culture of the moment perfectly.”
On September 20, 1973, 90 million people watched as King and Riggs faced off at a spectacularly thrilling exhibition match, which went down in history as the Battle of the Sexes. “It was one of the most widely watched sporting events ever. It was epic,” says Faris. “It captured people’s imagination and attention everywhere.”
The magnitude of that fight and what it represented fascinated Faris and Dayton, for whom Battle of the Sexes was a labour of love.
“We both remembered the historic match, which happened when we were kids, so it was fun to revisit it and realise how pertinent all these issues raised by the match still are today,” says Faris.
While capturing the zeitgeist, in terms of its socioeconomic themes, the film’s power is rooted in the relationships at the heart of the story. As the plot unravels, it becomes clear that both tennis players were dealing with personal conflicts.
Bobby Riggs had a gambling addiction. His marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) was in deep trouble. And professionally, having been a champion in his younger years, Riggs was no longer feeling relevant.
The tennis itself is gripping to watch. Emma Stone, already athletic and super-fit, trained for months.
“I did a lot of weightlifting and played a lot of tennis and studied Billie Jean. This is probably the most physical role that I’ve done and the preparation was a major aspect of my work.” Battle of the Sexes opens in major cinemas today
Emma Stone as tennis champion Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in a scene from Battle of the Sexes.