Billie Jean King Recalls ‘Battle of the Sexes’

Billie Jean King (L) and Bill Pullman attend Fox Searchlight’s Toronto Film Festival Party on September 10, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. ©Fox Searchlight. CR: Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Fox Searchlight Pictures.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—On September 20, 1973, top-rated women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King crushed former men’s pro Bobby Riggs in what was billed as The Battle of the Sexes, winning the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. It was a pivotal moment in the battle for women’s equality in the U.S., played out on a tennis court set on the floor of Houston’s Astrodome. The matchup took place at the height of the Women’s Lib movement and as female tennis pros were demanding equal pay as their male counterparts. Although initially reluctant to participate in the exhibition match, King eventually agreed to it believing it would bring the spotlight to the women players, who were in the process of forming their own tennis organization to protest the pay gap. The well-publicized event was watched on TV by an estimated 90 million people worldwide.

In her victory over trash-talking Riggs (who professed to being a male chauvinist, although much of that was hype), King bolstered female empowerment and yet the still-married athlete remained encumbered by another societal taboo—she could not publicly reveal her true identity as a gay woman. That would come later.

In “The Battle of the Sexes,” Emma Stone depicts the iconic tennis star, who is now a very spry 73 and continues to work tirelessly on behalf of women’s rights and the gay community. King cooperated with the production and was readily available to Stone, who had to learn to play tennis, a sport with which she previously had little familiarity.

Previously depicted by Oscar winner Holly Hunter in a 2001 TV movie “When Billie Beat Bobby,” the Southern California native says she is pleased with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ feature film, which delves into the identity issues King struggled with while simultaneously facing the pressure of representing womankind in a media-hyped matchup.

Dressed in a bold red pantsuit for a press conference, King spoke about the new dramedy that stars Stone along with Steve Carell as Riggs and Andrea Riseborough as King’s secret lover Marilyn Barnett, with whom she was unable to share one of the biggest moments of her career.

Q: After the TV movie came out 16 years ago, did you ever give up hope that there would be a theatrical film about The Battle of the Sexes?

King: I never think like that. To me, everything that happens is a blessing. First of all, it’s about relationships. When Holly did the TV movie, she and Gordon (MacDonald, her future husband) had become best friends. That, for me is everything. All of these things have been a blessing in my life. I’d never thought about a (theatrical) movie. We’ve had people come to us over the years about it but this one was perfect.

Q: “The Battle of the Sexes” depicts your ex-husband Larry as being quite calm and accepting when he learns of your infidelity with Marilyn Barnett. Was that accurate? Was the message about women’s equality more important than the marriage to him?

King: Larry and I always talked about changing the tennis world from the ‘60’s. It was at the Cal State L.A. library where we first started talking about how we wanted to change tennis so he and I were very much in it together, which really did show how he stayed connected and there is a scene there where we are forming the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and Larry has these papers sitting on the desk, which is in the movie. That was very important to me because those were the bylaws. He was a lawyer so he was able to get the bylaws ready before we had that meeting so we could elect the officers and actually have an association and have it ready to go. You can get together and say “Oh yeah. We’re going to do something,” and then we have to get everybody back together again to elect the officers and write up bylaws. Larry did that all before we had that happening and that made a huge difference so we were very much in it together.

Q: There’s an emotional scene in the film where, after the match between you and Bobby, where you are crying in the locker room. It seems there are a couple of things going through your mind at that point. One, being that you can’t be who you really are in public and, secondly, you are bearing the burden of being this example for women at that time. What did you think when you saw that scene played by Emma in the film?

King: I thought Emma absolutely portrayed it 100 percent right. I did not have an opportunity but that’s exactly how I felt. She captured it better than I could have even imagined. It was so touching when I saw it. It was so authentic about what was in my heart at the time.

Q: What did you think of the cast of this film?

King: Everyone was great; even the guys were great. Talking about this cast, if you’re talking in sports terms, they’re just an amazing team. They’re really good to each other and it’s been an unbelievable experience. At the premiere the other night, we had six of the original nine (female tennis pros from ’73) there. They all stood up and were acknowledged. It was a really great night.

Q: To commemorate the release of “The Battle of the Sexes,” Twenty-First Century Fox is donating 79 cents of every ticket sold during opening weekend to the Women’s Sports Foundation. How meaningful is that to you?

King: Very meaningful. I want to thank Twenty-First Century Fox for doing that. Working for Fox Searchlight has been an absolute joy. In the movie, they use the old (Fox) logo, the ’73 logo, which is totally cool. And I think (co-directors) Jonathan and Valerie did a fantastic job in the way they filmed it.

Also, I think women should only work 79 percent of the year. We have to work until April to receive equal pay with the guys. So, something has to stop, and something has to start.

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion about actresses not making as much as actors in Hollywood, even successful ones. What do actresses have to do now for equal pay? Should they form a union like the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association)?

King: I have to understand it totally—how they do box office etcetera. Once I understand it I might have an idea. I think they will have an idea. You never know how you will touch another person’s life and how they’ll touch yours as you go through life and it’s important to pay attention. This is one of those moments. I know I’ve been thinking quite a bit about it but I don’t know it well enough. They (actresses) understand it. They live it— the men and the woman—so I’d like to listen to them first and then it might be interesting to pursue.

You don’t want to disrupt anything. You want to just make things better for everyone so it’s a tightrope. We’re always on a tightrope because we’re always trying to get everybody’s hearts and minds to match up because once you alienate, they go away. (Working for equality) is a very, very difficult thing and you always try to do everything you can behind the scenes first and don’t go to the media unless it’s an absolute last resort because it’s not fun. It’s just not fun. You just want to do the right thing.

Q: You and Elton John have been friends for years and some of his music is on the soundtrack of this movie. Can you talk about your long friendship with him?

King: I met Elton two weeks before I played Bobby Riggs in Los Angeles at a party given by (billionaire/philanthropist) Jerry Perenchio. We were very shy and he kept looking across the room and finally his manager came over and said, “He wants to meet you but he’s too shy,” and I said “Ditto,” and he said, “Come with me,” and so we met each other and we were off and running, and then in ’74 he came to watch me play team tennis for the Philadelphia Freedoms. We were in the car going to a concert and he said, “I want to write a song for you,” and I go “What?” So, he said, “What are we gonna call it?” I go, “I don’t know.” He says, “You want to call it ‘Philadelphia Freedom?’” I said, “OK,” and it became a number one (hit) and it crossed over to R&B (charts), which made him so happy. His “Rocket Man,” which is in the film, is my brother’s favorite so it made me happy. I thought that it fit the scene so beautifully with the car going down the Pacific Coast Highway.

Q: Was Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” written for you?

King: He sings, “Is NOT my love,” you notice. (She sings the lyrics). (Producer) Quincy Jones told me (that Jackson) wrote, “Not my love” so people wouldn’t get confused but we’re still confused, but I love the beat. I do love that song.

Q: The LGBTQ community have found in you and subsequently in tennis pro Martina Navratilova incredible icons. Why is it so hard for men in sports to come out whereas for woman who come out as gay, it’s OK?

King:  It wasn’t (back then). (She chuckles.) I can tell you, just in general, whenever we were playing, the women were always asked about their sexuality, but the men never were. Right there, it’s more secretive. We don’t have to keep facing the barrage of questions, and it’s the last bastion of machismo. It just scares the death out of the guys because of how they’re going to be treated by their fellow players. That’s really important because, like with actors, that’s our family. When you see them together, they’re connected by their profession, so just being your authentic self is really difficult when it’s so shame-based, and it still is. That’s why it’s important to embrace everyone because you want everyone to be their unique self.

Q: Which is more difficult, learning how to dance or learning how to play tennis?

King: You’re joking, right? My parents danced a lot so I love dancing. That’s why it was fun (to be at the premiere party dancing) with Emma because I love dancing. I love ballet, modern dance, hip hop, anything. It’s all about moving and I love movement. You shape time and space, all that. It’s the best. But tennis came easier to me than dancing, so I never pursued (dance), but it would have been fun. Emma can teach me how to dance.

Q: Did you see the footage earlier this month of tennis pro Sloane Stephens after she won the U.S. Open singles and was presented with a check for $3.7 million on the court? What’s it like for you to see the female winner of the U.S. Open making $3.7 million? You were there at the Open. Was it incredible to witness that?

King: It was, and she’s also a woman of color. That’s one of the things we were trying to do as well. If you notice in “The Battle of the Sexes” how white everything is. I think we had two people of color in the audience. Thank God Rosie (Casals, a pro tennis player) was the announcer or else we would have been in big trouble. We had Jim Brown, the NFL football player and we also had George Foreman, the great boxer, and George bet on me. Of course, I knew Jim would bet on Bobby. George Foreman ended up being a security guard (during the match) because we had no security guards in those days in the end.