Anyone watching the trailer or commercials for the Emma Stone/Steve Carell film Battle of the Sexes may see it as something of an oddity; this weird little tale of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs trying to beat each other in a game of tennis. In the grand scheme of things, who cares, right? But back in 1973, when the events the film is based on originally played out, it represented a lot.
It seems foreign today, but back then, the women’s lib movement was in full swing, with strong ladies attempting to close the gap between how males and females were treated not only in sports and the workplace in general, but society as a whole. Women’s world champion Billie Jean was on a personal mission to level the paying field in sports. For his part, former men’s champion Bobby (also described as a “serial hustler”) made no secret of the fact that he believed women were inferior to men in every way, and was determined to prove it on the tennis court.
Emma, who won the Academy Award in the category of Best Actress for La La Land, points out that she believes both of them had very different intentions for participating in the match. “I think Billie Jean understood that Bobby wasn’t so much making a point as he was trying to create a grand, unforgettable entertainment with himself at the center,” she says. “But she also understood that if she could win, it could change the lives of millions.”
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Pressure much? But win Billie Jean King did, in one of the most watched sports events of its time (it reached 90 million viewers around the world). When it was all over, and Billie Jean — a woman! — had beaten Bobby, she made history, and he... went right back to his sexist views, brushing off the defeat and moving on.
“The effect it had on Billie Jean King’s life, on society, and on sports was immense,” Emma shares. “I don’t know that she could have possibly known just how incredibly impactful that day would be going forward in so many different areas. But in that moment, I think she did feel the weight of knowing she was representing the entire women’s movement and that made her even more passionate about the game.”
Emma’s initial lack of knowledge about the match’s importance was a major reason the actress wanted to take on the role in the first place. “This amazing moment was not really in my consciousness at all until I read the script,” she says. “I was especially struck by the reality that we actually 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.”
She was determined to learn all that she could about Billie Jean, particularly things the public may not have been aware of at the time. “From an early age,” Emma explains, “I think Billie Jean was driven by these larger ideas of affecting change in the world and she saw tennis as her vehicle to make that happen, because she was so great at it. You have to remember, it was looked down upon for a woman to even be an athlete when she was young — especially an aggressive women’s tennis player. From the start, she knew she was fighting for something bigger than herself.”
At the same time that Billie Jean was preparing for this historic match, she was also working to build the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and dealing with her own sexuality, including the strain it was placing on her marriage. Privately, she realized she was gay. While emotionally close to her husband, she was attracted to women, but feared word would get out and destroy everything she had worked so hard to achieve. Her first romance with another woman — though kept hidden — was with hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (played by Andrea Riseborough in the film). Portraying this aspect of Billie Jean was a challenge for Emma.
She points out, “This was not a slow burn romance. It was an instantaneous thing, because it unlocked something Billie Jean had suppressed for so long. Suddenly, this connection was a spark and realization that she maybe didn’t know she was missing in her life. But because of the times, it had to be played out on an unspoken, deeply private level that no one else knew.”
Obviously, it was a lot for someone to go through, but, Emma comments, “Billie Jean often says that pressure is a privilege, but this was an insane amount of pressure she was under. And I think she was still forming in so many ways. While playing her, I was trying to keep in mind everything that was going on. Honestly, I don’t know how she didn’t completely shut down.”
Emma got to know her on-screen alter-ego while researching the role. “The more time I spent with her,” notes Emma, “the more I understand that she has a beautiful outlook in terms of her belief system. Being with her is like being in the room with a 15-year-old kid who is excited by the whole world in front of them and fully believes great things can happen at any moment. This is how I related to Billie. We are both performers. The stage is my tennis court and I think for Billie, tennis was always a kind of dance.”
Battle of the Sexes hits theaters on Sept. 22.
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