THE 1973 BATTLE of the Sexes tennis match, Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs, has been adapted for the screen, “a combination of sport, politics and an amazing personal journey – everything you could possibly want to write about” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy told the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s an emotional, funny and often incredibly tense film that shares a hugely inspiring story.
But it will leave many worrying. Are we still dealing with the same issues today, and will we ever solve them?
Oscar winner Emma Stone, who plays King, admits that her first portrayal of a “real person” was fear-inducing, but in reality she is in comfortable territory as a strong willed woman with a desire to make a difference (see The Help).
Stone’s King is endlessly confident, founding the Women’s Tennis Association in response to the eight times pay difference for men’s and women’s tennis prize money, and fully committed to the sport. King’s success is followed by Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a former grand slam champion and “former” gambler. Now aged 55, Riggs is a self-aware alpha male, tired of his nine-to-five regime and missing the showmanship of his sports career. Despite proudly advertising himself as “the chauvinist pig”, Carrell is hugely likeable as Riggs.
“He wasn’t what he projected himself to be” Carrell said, after spending time with Riggs’ long time coach and friend. “He created the image of a horror show, but he was a good guy, and an endearing character to play.” Projecting an image to the outer world is a core theme. As well as King’s success challenging the men who dominated tennis, we are exposed to the realisation of her sexuality and her first relationship with a woman. The initial scene between Stone and hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseburgh) has such intimate focus, with the tension and vulnerability a contrast to Stone’s confidence in tennis.
This is same-sex attraction in the 1970s, and as it still is for many today – the excitement and fear of the first crush, the anxiety over how you will be judged by the person you are attracted to and, if you act on it, how you will be judged by others.
As their relationship progresses, King holds hand with Marilyn in the elevator and lets go just as the doors open. At the film’s climax, after kissing her husband once on the lips, she turns to Marilyn with love that she is unable publically to express.
Battle of the Sexes present’s King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell) as aware of her sexuality. King herself insists that they remained close friends after the divorce. In the film, Larry is the first to directly address that if her relationship were to be found out, her sponsors would revoke their support. In reality, King lost “at least $2 million” in endorsements after her former partner Marilyn outed her through a lawsuit (although the film does not cover this period).
This fear prevents top athletes today from coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Many wait until retirement and often regret waiting so long. In hindsight, they’re aware it hindered their performance, such as racing driver Danny Watts who said that staying hidden was “torture and pain” and certainly stopped him from achieving his potential. Equally dissatisfying is the sexism that still exists across many industries. King and her fellow female athletes are asked questions alarmingly similar to those used by interviewers today: Does this mean you’re a feminist? Do you miss your husbands when you’re on tour? Do you think female athletes are as entertaining as male counterparts?
Today, tennis is the only sport where men and women compete for the same prize money. Outside of sport, Emma Stone has spoken of male co-stars taking pay cuts so they have an equal salary to her. Would film executives today argue that male actors are more entertaining, or that men need higher pay to support their families?
As a gay woman who potentially earns 80p for every £1 earned by my male counterparts, I was always going to be biased toward Battle of the Sexes. Some will applaud how far equal rights have come since 1973, and while it’s true that gains have been made, many will have their head in their hands at the similarities with today.
Just this week, Australian tennis champion Margaret Court, who also features in the film, was dropped as patron of a Perth tennis club for her views on the Australian same-sex marriage vote. Court says that LGBT people “want to destroy marriage”, and that if a Yes vote goes ahead there would be “no Christmas”. There is no denying that directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), with the help of Billie Jean King, have told a compelling political story based on one historic moment.
Battle of the Sexes is released in the UK on November 24th.