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Volume 21 No. 6
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‘Battle of the Sexes’ captures ‘culture of the time’

Like any movie about a major historical event and period, “Battle of the Sexes” takes liberties with facts to portray, in this case, a major turn in the feminist movement. But there is much the movie got spot on, right down to how Billie
Jean King bounced the ball before her serves, thanks to an observation by Emma Stone, the actress who played her. SportsBusiness Journal caught up with King, a consultant to the movie, to find out just how realistic the movie is in depicting those months in 1973 that changed the world.

The tennis icon, Jack Kramer, who started professional tennis in the 1960s, is depicted as the boogeyman, the sexist man standing in the way of history. Was that true?

KING: You probably have to ask the USTA, I am not really sure. … This is a movie, it is not a documentary. You have to know, they decide how they want to portray it and they have got to tell us a story in very little time, so they have to figure out how to do it.

But was it accurate, the depiction?

KING: He was very tough on us. If you know the history, he was tough on us [us being the women who started the WTA and stood up for better prize money for women].

King, deflecting a volley during the 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, was impressed with the attention to detail paid by actress Emma Stone, who portrays her in the movie.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Did the movie capture the spirit of the time?

KING: They captured the culture of the time of the match in ’73, in they had, you know that Title IX just passed, and the women’s movement was at its height, and we only had four channels, we didn’t have cable, we were just going from rotary to touchtone, Watergate was just starting to heat up, Vietnam was cooling down.

When Riggs loses, everyone knows he hopped over the net, but in the movie he whispers in your ear that he underestimated you. Did he say that?

KING: Absolutely, that is absolutely on the money. … My father, my dad raised Randy [Moffitt, her brother and former pro baseball pitcher] and me to always respect our opponent and never, never — I mean he just pounded in us — never, ever, ever underestimate your opponents. So, when [Riggs] said that, when he jumped the net and said that, I just, my parents were there that night, you know they hardly ever came to tennis, I couldn’t wait to tell my dad. “Dad, daddy, you can’t believe what he said. He said exactly what you have been telling us forever, respect your opponent even if you don’t like them.” … I just thought that was hilarious.

The movie ends in 1973, and your companion Marilyn Barnett is so loving, and of course that’s not how the two of you ended up (Barnett would sue King for palimony, exposing her homosexuality in 1981 and costing her millions of dollars in endorsement income). Should the movie have addressed that at the end?

KING: It’s too much. It’s 1973, they wanted to capture that moment, the Battle of the Sexes, and that’s it.

There’s a scene where you berate a sexist man, did that happen?

KING: Oh yeah, are you kidding? That was mild in the movie. Yeah, every day. That’s why you have to never take anything personally, because otherwise stop and you would quit.

There’s another scene where you and other players land at the Honolulu airport and rush to quarter-operated TVs to see the outcome of the Riggs-Court match (Margaret Court’s loss to Riggs convinced a recalcitrant King to play Riggs). Did that happen?

KING: That is true. I learned in Hawaii when we were coming back from Japan. Absolutely.

On TVs like that?

KING: I told the writer about the TVs, you put your quarter in, (laugh) with the little desk. It was hysterical, yeah that’s true. 

Then I asked the flight attendant to triple check. … I can’t believe the score, I can’t believe. I get on the airplane to go to L.A. from Honolulu and I said, “You know the score between Court and Riggs?” and they said, “Yeah, he killed her, 2 and 1 [meaning 6-2, 6-1].” And I heard it like three times, and I knew as soon as Margaret lost that I had to play him.

Did you ever talk about that match with Court (who was then and is today outspoken against homosexuality)?

KING: No, I don’t bring it up. She had a bad day and we have all been there, and we all have empathy for her situation. She underestimated the circus. I tried to explain it to her quickly. I didn’t spend a lot of time with her.

Had the actors, Steve Carell and Emma Stone, who portray Riggs and you, played tennis?

KING: Steve had, not Emma. She understood really quickly, she was amazing. I can’t believe how fast she learned things. Her observation, even the consultants on the tennis, who were professional players, she caught something they didn’t catch, on the bouncing of the ball in my hand and the direction it was in. Very detailed. I thought that was brilliant. She said, “I don’t think her hand was that way, it was the other way, wasn’t it?” She was really sweet, too … the way she asked the question, she was being very sweet. And so, I bounced the ball a couple times and they went, “Oh my god, she’s right, we are wrong.”