Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Actress Andrea Riseborough Discuss 'Battle of the Sexes'
(From L-R): Natalie Morales, Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Kaitlyn Christian, Fidan Manashirova and Mickey Summer on the set of BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
In 1973, Billie Jean King, a 29-year-old American former World No. 1 professional women’s tennis champion, had the world betting against her in an exhibition match against Bobby Riggs, another former World No. 1 tennis champion. Yet, Riggs was 55-years-old and past his prime. He also was a self-proclaimed male chauvinist, touting beliefs that “women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom” and not on the tennis court.
With 30,000 people in attendance and millions tuning in on primetime TV, the spectacle had more than the $100,000 prize hanging over it. Remember, this was the 1970s and King was just as fierce a player in the women’s liberation movement as she was on the court. She was an ardent fighter in the demand for equal pay. Her logic: If women’s tennis was selling just as many tickets as the men’s sect, the prize earnings should match. In a male-dominated sports world, King’s advocacy was a whiff.
However, butting heads with an uneven tennis world and the men who oversee it was just one of King’s struggles. In Battle of the Sexes, a film named after that infamous showdown, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) unpack the silent personal turmoil King wrestled with and hid from the spotlight. Because in the 1970s, it was one thing to be a woman, it was another to be a woman demanding a man’s pay and it was a whole other thing if you were a lesbian. And Billie Jean King was all of the above.
Emma Stone expertly plays King in all arenas of her character: The outspoken, courageous women’s advocate (King’s male cohorts would probably use the word ‘feisty’); the determined leader of the nine women tennis players participating in the tennis startup tour Virginia Slims Circuit; the tender, compassionate (albeit torn, at times) lover to her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough.
Andrea Riseborough and Emma Stone in the film BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Having met King in person, Riseborough said “what you get when you talk to Billie Jean about anyone, is love,” which made it fitting for Dayton and Faris to take on this project.
“I knew they had the best motivations for making the film because it was coming from a place of real love,” Riseborough said during the San Francisco stop of the film’s press tour. “[The film] is really about this beautiful time in [King’s] life; sexual awakening and the feeling of liberation and redefining what her body meant to her. That Billie’s body wasn’t just a machine for tennis, but it was also being awakened in other ways – in a sensual way.”
Stone’s performance was matched by Steve Carell portrayal of Riggs, who married his talents for gambling and tennis by betting on himself in goofed-up courts set with obstacles and rendered one-handed.
Riggs found few thrills in little else not involving winning money against the odds, and playing against a woman on primetime television fit the bill. Whether or not you believe Riggs’ character as a genuine male chauvinist or just playing the part to add fuel to the fire, is up for interpretation.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
The film doesn’t make it difficult to root for King, but Dayton and Faris also made it a point to not paint the movie’s men as evil villains either. Carell’s Riggs may offer a sillier version of the era's chauvinism, but Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer (co-founder of Association of Tennis Professionals, who turned down King’s request for equal pay) served as the movie’s poster boy for how such undermining views of women were just a product of the times.
“We chose [Pullman] because he brings a humanity and he liked the idea that he wasn’t going to be your typical bad guy,” Dayton explained. “We worked with him to try and make him more complex and give him some dignity. Even if you ultimately don’t like what he’s saying, you see his humanity. It doesn’t have to change the way you respond to his point of view, but at least see him as a person.”
“It’s not that he is evil, but he’s saying horrible things,” Faris added. “I think what we’re trying to do is just break down some of the walls, so that people can talk about things. What’s interesting in this story is she confronted him, she went to him face-to-face. And that was kind of what we were interested in, was what real dialogue looks like.”
Dialogue is the key to unlocking character intentions and writer Simon Beaufoy is superb in penning in conversational nuggets that play within the social and political issues in King’s time, yet resonate today. When accused of hating women, Kramer retorted, “I don’t hate women, I’ve been married for 30 years.” When asked why she hates men, King explained, “Wanting equal pay for women doesn’t mean we hate men, we just want to be treated the same.”
But tucked between the political and social layers of the story, King’s self-realization shines through. The film’s most tender moments are the shared glances between Stone and Riseborough’s characters, the one piece of King’s life that remained private out of necessity, but also couldn’t be contained.
“In the beginning, it must’ve been really hard for Billie Jean to watch her early life play out and re-watch those painful moments in her life,” said Riseborough. “And she’s a lot more, sort of, comfortable with it now. She’s just so courageous that she’s willing to share that story. I think it’ll help a lot of people.”
“Once the film came out and she could see it with people and watch it with an audience, she realized that people get it,” Faris said. “They’re embracing it and that gave her a kind of confidence.”
The real-life Billie Jean was lightly involved with the film, with hopes that it would be “fun, but also empowering,” particularly to young people struggling with their sexuality. Having written, shot and edited the film throughout the recent presidential primaries, campaigns and elections, Dayton and Faris had intentions for Battle of the Sexes to celebrate how far we’ve come – instead, it’s a picture of how far we’ve yet to go.
Battle of the Sexes is now playing in San Francisco.