To former tennis champ Billie Jean King, the 1970s were “a very exciting and tenuous time.” After all, while women couldn't get a credit card in their own name without having it cosigned by a man, and at best women were making 50 cents to the men’s dollar, Title IX did become law in 1972, prohibiting sex discrimination in programs receiving federal aid.
Moreover, during the height of the women’s movement in the ’70s, King solidified her place in history with another crack in that barrier. Already the top women’s tennis player, she took on former tennis pro Bobby Riggs, whose boastful taunts about women belonging in the kitchen (and bedroom) had deepened the gender divide across the nation. Riggs set out to show that women could never be equal to men and meant to prove it by trouncing King in a nationally televised exhibition match. But King turned the tables in that now infamous September 1973 “battle of the sexes,” taking the match in three straight sets.
“That year was a pivotal year in sports, but for women it was huge,” King recalls.
Now, nearly 44 years later, that match and the surrounding socio-political environment for women (and LGBTQ people), is the subject of the film “Battle of the Sexes.” Starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs, the picture explores King’s efforts, and those of the other women who helped form the Women's Tennis Assn., to achieve equal pay for male and female players. The film also stars Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue and Sarah Silverman.
Ahead of the film’s Sept. 22 release, The Times spoke with Stone and King in a joint phone call about the match, its enduring impact on the fight for gender equality and what that looks like for the pay equity conversation currently going on in Hollywood.
Describe the process you took to step into Billie Jean King’s shoes for the role?
Stone: It was pretty extensive. Obviously, I am not Billie Jean King, so I had a lot to learn [laughs]. For me, it was about learning so much about Billie Jean and watching footage of her and reading interviews with her, just steeping myself as much as possible in her particular story and learning more about the time period, how much was shifting and what a pivotal time it was for women and equality.
Obviously, I am not Billie Jean King, so I had a lot to learn.
— Emma Stone
In the film, Riggs comes off as overblown and pompous. Was he really insufferable?
King: Yes, actually, he was [laughs]. But he had many layers to his character, not just the obvious. He had a lot of turmoil going on in his life off the court as well, and I had my own set of issues with my sexuality and trying to figure out who the heck I am as my authentic self. I was paralyzed at that time and I thought Emma did a great job digging in deep and understanding my dilemma at the time.
Emma, you mentioned that you watched a lot of interviews Billie Jean had done, but how did you access the head space for the big match? Did you two talk before shooting?
Stone: Absolutely. The great gift of Billie Jean being as outspoken as she was, and is, was her writing. Being able to read in a memoir format every step of the way what she was going through with the battle and to have that [as a] reference point, and also interviews, was so helpful to me.
Billie Jean, what comes to mind about what that moment meant, and means, to people?
King: When women talk to me, it’s more about empowerment. Like, “Oh, my God, I never had the courage to ask for a raise.” But then I ask them did they get the raise, and they say “yes.” Because they asked for what they wanted and needed. Then men come up to me and they're more reflective. Because of that match, they look at life differently and want their daughters, and their sons, to have equal rights and opportunities. Even when I met President Obama, one of the first things he told me was, “I was 12 years old when I watched that match, it changed my life and [impacts] how Michelle and I raise our daughters.”
Has that type of pressure for women to be better than men changed over the years?
King: You know what’s interesting? Emma is going through it right now. The men [in Hollywood] are getting more money than women, and it was the same thing with us. Every person should [get] equal pay for equal work. The men have the power. We need them to step up, because they could do this overnight… Once women are making the same, the world will be a better place.
Every person should [get] equal pay for equal work. The men have the power. We need them to step up, because they could do this overnight.
— Billie Jean King
Stone: I want to elaborate on what Billie Jean is talking about, which I mentioned in another interview, men taking pay cuts for me. Part of what I was trying to illuminate is not that they were going, “Aw, I’ll get paid less to make a point.” It was that there is only so much money offered in these circumstances to actors. In [them voluntarily cutting their salaries], we were able to come to an equal place. What Billie Jean illuminated, and the point I was trying to make, was that we’re looking at companies across America where men have greater opportunities to raise their salaries and have bigger positions within the company. But there is only going to be so much money within the company...
In terms of the match and what Billie Jean is talking about, you hear how that match impacted people... It’s such a visceral experience in American and sports history. She was hugely successful, inspiring men and women so much with her power and grace. You can see that with how she speaks in those interviews, the ability to laugh off and play around with this buffoonish guy — who I know was a really complicated man — the grace that requires to have him saying these things that are so sexist and ludicrous and to befriend him... Didn’t you speak to him right before he died?
King: Yeah, I talked to him the night before [he died]... er say a hateful word about anyone. I don’t think she has the capacity for it. The reason she was and is such an inspiring figure is she is so about equality, loves men and women, but is about equal opportunities for everyone. That's the ultimate conversation, the idea of respect and equal treatment when it comes to pay, and then we can tackle the world from there. It’s so important to have that respect between our sexes. And she's an icon for that type of behavior and treatment.
We’re doing screenings of this movie with college kids and high schools and doing panels [about equality]. We’re trying to have people discussing this and pushing toward equality for all. Coretta Scott King talked about freedom and how every generation has to start over for freedom. But if each generation can push forward just one more step… It’s like a relay race. And now I’m going to pass the baton to the Emmas of the world. We all stand on the shoulders of those before us. I hope this movie will be a catalyst to bring this issue out [to the forefront].