Academy-award winner Emma Stone was born 15 years after Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs squared off in the Houston Astrodome for the “Battle of the Sexes.” The much-hyped tennis match where the always hustling Riggs donned a Sugar Daddy sweat jacket and had a female entourage surrounding him, King entered on a Cleopatra-type throne carried by half-naked men, Howard Cosell did the play-by-play telecast on ABC and millions tuned in to see if the blabbermouth Riggs would end up putting his foot in his yap.
King was victorious in that match – which earned her a $ 100,000 paycheck – and the event represented a watershed moment for the issues King was fighting for and had been championing for years before the 1973 showdown with Riggs: women’s rights, gender equality and equal pay.
“That’s why I wanted to do it, because she is who she is,” says Stone, of taking on the challenge to play King in the Fox Searchlight film – “Battle of the Sexes,” which will be released Sept. 22 – where she stars opposite Steve Carell, who plays Riggs.
“I found the story so moving, and inspiring and human. She’s accomplished great things, but she’s also faced adversity and gone through so much in her life,” says Stone. “Nothing was handed to Billie Jean. She’s worked for everything that she’s done throughout this life that was going to be so great since she was 7.”
The movie focuses on the buildup to the ’73 “Battle of the Sexes” match – including King’s fight to establish a women’s professional tennis entity, which eventually became the WTA – as well as King’s affair with Marilyn Barnett, a hair stylist who King become involved with while still married to her husband, Larry. Stone says that one of the many challenges of playing King on a day-to-day basis on set, was trying to digest and understand all of the factors, internal and external, that were impacting and influencing King’s life at that time.
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs announce the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match in Manhattan in July 1973.
(Jim Garrett/New York Daily News)
“Every day that I would try to simplify what I was playing in that moment – it’s just not simple,” says Stone.
“Gay kids didn’t talk to gay kids in the ‘70s. They didn’t talk about it at all, not in the locker rooms. Never,” says King, who has been with her life partner, Ilana Kloss, for 38 years. “It’s good for younger people to understand what was going on, because kids will go, ‘Oh that’s no big deal.’ Yeah it was. It was a big deal.”
Elisabeth Shue, the Oscar-nominated actress (“Leaving Las Vegas”) who plays Riggs’ wife Priscilla Wheelan in the film, was 9-years-old when King and Riggs played their nationally-televised match. Shue grew up in South Orange, New Jersey with three brothers, and that meant that the battle lines were drawn when she and her siblings had to take sides on who to root for between King and Riggs.
“I remember it very well. I remember it meant a lot to my mom. I remember my brothers were running around the house saying that they thought Bobby was going to win. I remember being very angry at them. I remember being very, very happy when Billie Jean King won,” says Shue. “I remember taunting them and holding it over them for many weeks afterward. I wish I was a little bit older at the time because then I would have understood the true impact of really what (King) had done for women. I can now understand my mom, all the opportunities she had as a woman and how many more opportunities I’ve had in my generation.”
Emma Stone and Steve Carell re-create the scene for the new movie about the much-hyped tennis match.
(Melinda Sue Gordon)
Shue, a mother of three, says that when her 16-year-old daughter saw “Battle of the Sexes” earlier this year in Telluride, Colo., she exited the theater weeping.
“I said, ‘(Stella), what’s going on?’ She’s like, ‘I understand what it feels like to feel less than.’ I see how far we have to go,” says Shue. “I do think our country’s almost taking a step backwards – in terms of accepting people for who they are, and not judging people, and not dividing people. This movie hopefully will remind everybody that everyone deserves to be who they want to be. We should all be respected for that.”
That is King’s greatest hope, too, that the movie resonates with audiences young and old, and can be equal parts history lesson and reality check.
“I hope this movie is relevant. I hope it helps younger people to know the story, but more importantly, what are we going to do with now and the future? I hope it will help everyone in some way. I think it’ll carry on discussions and dialogue and maybe it will help,” says King. “I really want it to hopefully make a positive difference. I am just really fortunate that Emma played me. I think she took a huge risk because I’m still alive. I just really want (the film) to count. I hope if even one more person becomes comfortable in their own skin from this, then that’s also really going to be helpful so we can all be our authentic self. It really speaks loudly to that.”