DEFIN­ING BAT­TLE

The chal­lenge by for­mer male ten­nis champ Bobby Riggs to fe­male No.1 Bil­lie Jean King put gen­der equal­ity on front pages everywhere

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - PLAY - ELAINE LIPWORTH

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.

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