Battle Of The Sexes
Published Date: 15/11/2017
"I started thinking about society and women and what this might mean… I knew I had to win." Billie Jean King, 2015
Battle of the Sexes, a single tennis match between rising 29 year-old women’s star Billie Jean King and former men’s champ Bobby Riggs was watched by an estimated audience of some 90 million viewers. Television viewers across the globe sat on the edges of their seats watching the confrontation between Bobby and Billie Jean and by the time it was game, set and match, something new had emerged: an era of sports no longer separated from politics and social change, but part of making it.
Husband-and-wife directorial team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Academy Award winning Little Miss Sunshine) explore a moment when social change was embodied by two complex people. Dayton and Faris brought together Oscar winner Emma Stone (La La Land), in a physically and emotionally demanding role unlike any she’s yet tackled, with Oscar nominee Steve Carell at his most complicated as self-made media celebrity Bobby Riggs.
Oscar winning British producer Christian Colson (Slumdog Millionaire), who joins with Danny Boyle and Robert Graf in producing the film, knew this was a film he had to make, saying: “It’s a story beautifully rendered by a writer, two directors, two stars and a great ensemble all at the very top of their game – and a story people will talk about on the way home. The film prompts us to ask what has changed, and what has stayed the same? On a personal level, it’s about how we find the courage to live within our own skins. It’s a very hopeful film and clings stubbornly to the conviction that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Riggs had been a #1-ranked player of the 40s, winning both Wimbledon and the US Open. By 1973, now retired, he missed the drama of the game and having an outlet for his love of disruption and self-promotion. Seeing women gaining power in tennis as elsewhere, he saw an opportunity to create some interesting havoc. Riggs publicly opined that female tennis was inferior – and dared a woman player to prove otherwise by beating him. He knew the idea had commercial potential, and he knew King was the ultimate rival. When he played and beat women’s #1 Margaret Court, King felt she had no choice but to take the risk of taking Riggs on. But neither could have foreseen just how wild a circus they would create or what it would mean for so many.
Says screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) : “The match was watched by the largest TV audience since the moon landing. It was a massive spectacle, filled with the sort of hoopla that had never been seen before or probably since on a tennis court. Yet, the match was almost a sideshow to the bigger battle that raged in America: man versus woman. I’m not sure there’s been such a clear-cut binary debate since, either in politics or sport!”
Playing Billie Jean King is Emma Stone. The lure of the project began with the fact that she knew so little about the 1973 match, and realised it was being lost to history for her generation. “This amazing moment was not really in my consciousness at all until I read the script,” Stone notes. “I was especially struck by the reality that we really haven’t come that far from these events that took place 43 years ago. I could relate strongly to Billie Jean’s struggle and I think so many people will relate to these same themes today.”
Stone dove into her own research, reading, watching and absorbing all she could. “I wanted to know as much as I possibly could about all Billie Jean was going through,” explains Stone. “There’s so much that the public didn’t see at that time - so much that was happening for her internally.”
Playing King’s rival, is Steve Carell. The actor remembered as a kid seeing through Riggs’ chauvinist stance as a put-on. “I remember a lot was being made about him being this sexist pig and people were so outraged,” he recalls. “But even as an 11 year-old I could distinguish between the act and the person, much in the same way you would see Ali saying really inflammatory things with such bravado, but you knew that it was just a performance. Bobby enjoyed getting people riled up and that was part of his charm.”
Christian Colson sees Carell as uncovering the depths of Riggs. “The actual Bobby played the buffoon, but there’s real tragedy in his story and dignity too, and that’s what Steve finds,” he comments. “Here’s a guy who had a genuine legacy as a great sportsman but gambled it away for one more shot at the limelight. Steve’s funny in the role of course but he also plays Bobby very poignantly, as a man out of time. He finds a humanity in him as a little boy lost, and ultimately a hint of redemption, too.”
Released by Fox Searchlight here in the UK we were fortunate enough to see a preview of The Battle of the Sexes and there is much to enjoy in this charming and thought-provoking film, centred by two outstanding central performances from Stone and Carell.
The Battle of the Sexes opens at Showcase on November 24 - CLICK HERE to book now