GAME, SEX, MATCH

EMMA STONE AND THE TEN­NIS FIX­TURE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - BY PHILIPPA HAWKER

Emma Stone had many anx­i­eties about be­com­ing Bil­lie Jean King for her new film, Bat­tle of the Sexes. She would be play­ing a real per­son for the first time. A public fig­ure. An ath­lete. Some­one ad­mirable yet vul­ner­a­ble. “I didn’t want to be do­ing an im­per­son­ation or an im­pres­sion of her in any way,” she says. “I wish in ev­ery way I could be an ex­act match for her, but I think that the most im­por­tant part of the story is her heart and her spirit. If I could bring any of that to life, I felt that was the big­gest part of my job.”

There were things she found she could iden­tify with in the fig­ure of King. Self-doubt. A painstak­ing ap­proach to per­for­mance. A pas­sion for do­ing some­thing you love. And the sense of how dif­fi­cult it is to bridge the gap be­tween a public and a pri­vate life.

And she was struck, she says, by some­thing else they had in com­mon. She is al­most the same age as King was dur­ing the events the film de­picts, and that means “I can re­late to so many of the feel­ings I think she’s hav­ing”.

Bat­tle of the Sexes is set in 1973, and it re­volves around a fa­mous ten­nis match be­tween cham­pion Bil­lie Jean King, then aged 29, and former cham­pion Bobby Riggs, then 55 years old. The game was driven by Riggs, a gam­bler and show­man, who de­clared that the best woman in the world would not be able to beat him. He turned the chal­lenge into a me­dia cir­cus, a spec­ta­cle played out in front of a celebrity crowd and a tele­vi­sion au­di­ence of 90 mil­lion.

The match is only part of the movie. It’s also the tale of a move­ment for change, an ac­count of how women play­ers — of­fered one-eighth of the men’s prize money — de­fied the male ten­nis es­tab­lish­ment and set up a tour of their own. And it’s a story of what else was hap­pen­ing to King be­hind the scenes.

It’s about public stances and pri­vate lives, emo­tions and se­crets, soli­tude and de­sire.

As the fo­cus was on the fu­ture of women’s ten­nis, King had other things on her mind. She had fallen in love with an­other woman. She had be­gun a re­la­tion­ship with Mar­i­lyn Bar­nett, a hair­dresser she had met on tour. She was mar­ried; she had con­ser­va­tive par­ents; she felt that, in the cli­mate of the time, she had to keep this re­la­tion­ship a se­cret.

“The pres­sure,” says Stone, “was a huge el­e­ment for me to try to com­mu­ni­cate. That strug­gle with her sex­u­al­ity and what the im­pli­ca­tions were at that time, and be­ing mar­ried, and all of the things that come along with that.”

The chal­lenge, she says, is “keep­ing that thread of the ten­sion and pres­sure alive through­out the film. For her, be­ing out in the world and try­ing to be true to her­self was a very scary prospect.”

Stone came to Bat­tle of the Sexes straight af­ter her Os­car-win­ning role in La La Land. She had al­ready done singing and danc­ing boot­camp for the mu­si­cal num­bers for that movie. Now she had to spend four months work­ing out — with Matt Da­mon’s Bourne se­ries trainer — to ac­quire an ath­lete’s physique. No one was go­ing to turn her into a ten­nis player, but she had to look and move like one.

Bat­tle of the Sexes was de­vel­oped by pro­ducer Chris­tian Col­son in con­junc­tion with screen­writer Si­mon Beau­foy and di­rec­tor Danny Boyle, who had worked to­gether on 127 Hours and Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire. When Boyle had to drop out to work on an­other film, the pro­duc­ers turned to di­rec­tors Va­lerie Faris and Jonathan Day­ton, the hus­band-and-wife team who made Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine and Ruby Sparks.

For Faris, the ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal el­e­ments of the story were equally im­por­tant. “When we first met with Emma, we said: ‘This is a very phys­i­cal role, we re­ally want you to feel what it’s like to live in­side an ath­lete’s body.’ It’s im­por­tant that is there, as well as the in­ter­nal life, which we knew Emma would get.

“We talked a lot about each scene, what each

one was about and what it would feel like, to make sure we were all see­ing the story in the same way.”

King, now 73, is cred­ited as a con­sul­tant on the film. She was a re­source in var­i­ous ways for the film­mak­ers. “It was both a lux­ury but also a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity to have her look­ing over our shoul­der,” says Day­ton. Beau­foy spent a long time with her, ad­mires her deeply, and counts her as a friend.

Stone met King and talked to her, but was very cau­tious about how much use to make of that op­por­tu­nity. What she didn’t need, Stone says, was the ben­e­fit of hind­sight. She didn’t want to draw on King’s me­mories of her past.

“I was ner­vous about re­ly­ing on her too much. She could say: ‘ Oh, that was why I did this, that was why that hap­pened.’ But in the mo­ment, you don’t know why.”

Stone wanted her ver­sion of the char­ac­ter to have a sense of im­me­di­acy, to con­vey what it was like to be that per­son at that ex­tra­or­di­nary, chaotic mo­ment in 1973, when the public realm and her pri­vate world were both in tur­moil. “I felt it was my re­spon­si­bil­ity to stay true to that el­e­ment,” she says.

And there was an­other risk in spend­ing time with King, she adds. “If I got too close to her, I would end up want­ing to please her.”

What King was able to give her was a way of think­ing about ten­nis in a per­former’s terms. “Bil­lie Jean is such an in­cred­i­ble coach, and she in­stantly keyed into me. She said: ‘Well, you’re a dancer.’ ” Stone says wryly: “I told her, ‘Well, some could ar­gue that I’m not, but I have danced.’ And she said: ‘Well, this is my dance, this is my stage, that’s where I per­form, I go out there and I do my chore­og­ra­phy and I im­pro­vise and vi­su­alise ev­ery­thing, I know what I’m try­ing to do. And I feel the ex­act same way as I think you do on the stage.’

“It was re­ally in­ter­est­ing to ap­ply those lessons of block­ing out the rest of the world and fo­cus­ing clearly and imag­in­ing where you want to go and try­ing to fol­low through to that point, whether it’s where you put the ball on the court or what your emo­tional in­ten­tion for a scene is.”

Beau­foy thinks that Stone has un­der­gone a re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion. “There’s a kind of de­ter­mi­na­tion be­hind the eyes that I had never seen in one of Emma’s per­for­mances be­fore. She’s very mer­cu­rial by na­ture on screen, but not in this. She has this look in her eye that says: I will not be stopped.”

Bat­tle of the Sexes be­gins with an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic de­pic­tion of a sport­ing mo­ment. An im­pres­sion­is­tic, im­mer­sive com­bi­na­tion of im­age and au­dio: the blurred fig­ure of a ten­nis player, the sound of breath, the thwack of rac­quet on ball. Sound de­sign was a very im­por­tant way for the film to cre­ate a sense of in­ti­macy: “We all know what a close-up is in film,” Day­ton says. “It’s a vis­ual thing. But it can be an au­dio thing too.’’

This scene told the au­di­ence some­thing about what was to fol­low. “Peo­ple were on some level ex­pect­ing Bat­tle of the Sexes to be a sports movie,” Day­ton says, “and we wanted to set the dis­course in such a way that it felt it wasn’t go­ing to be your typ­i­cal sports film.”

He and Faris didn’t want a sense of nos­tal­gia or his­tor­i­cal dis­tance. “We wanted it to feel like a con­tem­po­rary film,’’ he says. “You are not look­ing back. No cute shots of bell-bot­toms. We treated it as if it were made in 1973. We used zoom lenses, we went as far as we could to put you in a movie that was made at that time.”

Within that con­text, it was im­por­tant to get to know a range of char­ac­ters, to de­fine the time through in­ter­ac­tion. “For us, the re­la­tion­ships are part of a way that we shape the movie, you get to know the char­ac­ters by their re­la­tion- ships to the other char­ac­ters.”

For Faris, “one thing we kept re­turn­ing to was that we wanted to make the love story in a way that we could feel that de­sire. It was the part of the story that hadn’t been told, but we re­ally wanted it to come through.”

Bar­nett — played by Andrea Rise­bor­ough — cut and styled King’s hair for a pho­to­shoot on tour. They were in­stantly at­tracted to one an­other and be­gan a covert re­la­tion­ship.

Their first en­counter has the same kind of im­mer­sive qual­ity as the open­ing se­quence of the film. Stone loves the scene, “the way you sort of en­ter into their minds”, and how it cre­ates a sense of “what it feels like to be mag­net­i­cally drawn to some­one”.

Rise­bor­ough, a chameleon ac­tor, played op­po­site Stone in Ale­jan­dro Gon­za­lez Inar­ritu’s

Bird­man. Stone played Michael Keaton’s daugh­ter, Rise­bor­ough her love.

Rise­bor­ough’s trans­for­ma­tive qual­ity, Faris says, “was partly what we loved about her. There are many rea­sons we cast her, but one was be­cause she could dis­ap­pear into that role. We just wanted you to be caught up in Bil­lie Jean’s view, and I think it will take you out of the scene if it was some­body too recog­nis­able.”

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bar­nett and King did not end well. Bat­tle of the Sexes gives no hint of this, how­ever. “Its story took place in a very lim­ited time pe­riod, and it was very im­por­tant to por­tray her as a pos­i­tive force,” Faris says. Day­ton adds: “Be­cause at that time she was. Things changed.”

Stone, Beau­foy, Faris and Day­ton all talk about the iso­la­tion at the heart of ten­nis. “It’s such a solo thing,” Stone says. The player is alone on court. No con­tact with coaches or ad­vis­ers. “You have to be strong men­tally and phys­i­cally,” Beau­foy says. “It’s a lonely place. You spend all that time in a great wide space on your own, at some dis­tance from your op­po­nent. There’s no place to hide, you can’t blame a team­mate.”

When it came to film­ing the match, the so-called “Bat­tle of the Sexes” in the Hous­ton Astrodome, they care­fully in­cor­po­rated the commentary of the time.

In the end, the match is shot very much in the style of a con­tem­po­rary broad­cast — but what’s just as im­por­tant is what hap­pens around the game. They wanted to find a way to show how they saw King in the moments be­fore­hand, and in the af­ter­math.

What’s not nec­es­sar­ily clear at this stage is King’s at­ti­tude to­wards her op­po­nent. Stone says King re­spected Riggs. “She still talks about that, she stud­ied him, she didn’t take it lightly — even though he was 55 and pop­ping 400 vi­ta­mins and act­ing ridicu­lously about it all.”

Riggs is played by Steve Carell, whom Faris and Day­ton worked with in Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine. Carell em­braces the sin­gu­lar­ity of Riggs — his love of the hus­tle, his in­stincts for the spec­ta­cle. The film also de­picts his long-suf­fer­ing, ul­ti­mately sup­port­ive, fam­ily.

“We didn’t want to re­duce him to a bad guy,” says Day­ton. “Or for that mat­ter a clown. Bil­lie Jean is the first per­son to say what an im­por­tant fig­ure he was in her life.” They be­came great friends, Beau­foy says — King recog­nised that his per­sona, his claim to be “putting the show in chau­vin­ism”, was an act.

In gen­eral, Faris says, they did not want to cre­ate “good guys and bad guys”, even as they evoked the con­de­scen­sion and sex­ism that was an ac­cepted part of the cul­ture. “We wanted to dif­fuse the bi­nary na­ture of th­ese kinds of ar­gu­ments, raise the is­sues and get a con­ver­sa­tion go­ing. And I think be­cause pol­i­tics have be­come so po­larised th­ese days, we weren’t adding fuel to that.”

It was the same, she says, for the fig­ure of Mar­garet Court (Jes­sica McNamee), who joined the women’s tour af­ter the early stages. She’s shown dis­play­ing a com­pet­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with King on and off the court, and a sus­pi­cious at­ti­tude to­wards the sex­u­al­ity of other women play­ers on the tour. She ar­tic­u­lates some of what King feared would be said if her re­la­tion­ship was made public.

Court has an­other role to play in this story. She ac­cepted a chal­lenge from Riggs when King would not, and she lost, in a match that was dubbed the “Mother’s Day Mas­sacre”. It was this re­sult that forced King to take on the Bat­tle of the Sexes — she found her­self car­ry­ing the ban­ner for women’s sport in a way that she was not en­tirely com­fort­able with. “She was very con­cerned that she was be­lit­tling women’s ten­nis,” Faris says. Hav­ing taken up the chal­lenge, she had to em­brace the hoopla.

In their de­pic­tion of Court, Faris says, they wanted to give a con­text. “She would never have called her­self a fem­i­nist, but she’s sup­port­ing her fam­ily, she’s a work­ing mother. And yet she’s this bigot.” The fig­ures in this story, she says, are not eas­ily summed up. “They are com­plex char­ac­ters, not cliches.”

Bat­tle of the Sexes opens on Septem­ber 28.

Emma Stone, top, and as Bil­lie Jean King, left, with Steve Car­rell as Bobby Riggs

Andrea Rise­bor­ough and Stone, left; King and Riggs, in­set be­low; and Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, bot­tom

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