For Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs the “battle of the sexes” was about finding their true selves and changing the future.
Husband-and-wife directorial team Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who gave us Little Miss Sunshine, explore a moment when social change was embodied by two complex people in Battle Of The Sexes, the spectacular single tennis match between rising 29 year-old women’s star Billie Jean King and former men’s champ Bobby Riggs.
As 90 million viewers worldwide sat at the edges of their couches, the confrontation between Bobby and Billie Jean was fated to be as surreal as it was world-shattering. By the time it was game, set and match, something new had emerged: an era of sports no longer separated from politics and social change, but part of making it.
1973: a watershed year of progress in American history – the start of Ms. magazine, passage of Title IX, Congressional ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe vs. Wade. But despite it all, women were still struggling just to get a credit card in their name. Then came one event that would strike a different kind of blow for equality, one that hit right to the heart of pop culture, cheekily dubbed “Battle of the Sexes”.
Dayton and Faris brought together Oscar winner Emma Stone, in a physically and emotionally demanding role unlike any she’s yet tackled, with Oscar nominee Steve Carell at his most complicated as self-made media celebrity Bobby Riggs.
The married team Faris and Dayton began their careers directing the ground breaking MTV music documentary show, “The Cutting Edge.” They’ve directed award-winning videos and documentaries for numerous artists, and have won two Grammy Awards, and nine MTV Music Video Awards. They co-founded Bob Industries, a commercial production company, directing television ads for Apple, AT&T, Sony, NBA and ESPN, among others. They made their feature film directorial debut with the critical and commercial hit, Little Miss Sunshine, which was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. They followed it with Ruby Sparks.
“Battle Of The Sexes is both the story of an historic sporting event and of a woman’s private, personal transformation while under intense public exposure,” says Faris. “We were interested in how she was fighting both personal and political battles at the same time.”
“It was the most challenging project of our careers,” says Dayton. “It is at once a sports movie, a love story, a socio-political drama, and at times a comedy. 44 years after the Battle, the same issues are clearly still being debated. We were struck by how this circus-like event became a place where important social issues were played out.”
“This match felt like a precursor to the way politics are working in our country today, how the debate is so often reduced to a game or entertainment,” says Faris. “We’re often more caught up in who wins than in what is really at stake. We started work on the project during the 2016 primaries, when it appeared likely we’d see the first woman candidate for president. For a while everyone thought the film would show how far we’ve come since the Battle. Obviously the outcome of the election shed a very different light on the story.”
This motivated them to focus even more on the personal stories of two people who were not as different as it might have appeared. Both were caught up in the media and in a moment larger than their individual struggles.
“The world has become even more polarized since we began making the film and we certainly don’t want to contribute to that – that’s why we chose to focus on the emotional lives of Billie Jean and Bobby,” explains Faris.
Dayton chimes in: “Our goal was to empathize with all the characters and experience the complexity of the situation”.
Background To The Battle
By 1973 all kinds of walls – of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation – were just starting to tumble.
Women were organizing and marching like they never had before, yet were making just 58 cents on the dollar compared to men and doors to opportunity remained slammed shut in every walk of life. There was still a long way to go, but it was a moment when change was palpable.
That’s part of what drew the filmmakers to Battle Of The Sexes.
“We were interested in 1973 as a time of great upheaval,” says Dayton.
“You had the Equal rights amendment, Roe vs. Wade, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and everything seemed to be in question. Then, suddenly, the debate over women’s equality finds a forum in a tennis match between the 29-year-old woman’s champion Billie Jean King and 55-year-old former champ Bobby Riggs. As silly as it seemed on the surface, it became a huge deal. Bobby Riggs was on the cover of Time Magazine,” points out Dayton.
It was Riggs who turned the match into a social debate that rang around the world. King had already been fighting for equality in tennis, where women were still earning as little as 1/12 of the men’s prize money. She pioneered the Virginia Slims Tour, which for the first time allowed women to set their financial terms, founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and become the first female tennis player ever to top $100,000 a year. But it was the match against Riggs that broadened the conversation, as well as King’s faith in what was possible.
Riggs had been a #1-ranked player of the 40s, winning both Wimbledon and the US Open. By 1973, now retired, he missed the drama of the game and having an outlet for his love of disruption and self-promotion. Seeing women gaining power in tennis as elsewhere, he saw an opportunity to create some interesting havoc. Riggs publicly opined that female tennis was inferior – and dared a woman player to prove otherwise by beating him. He knew the idea had commercial potential, and he knew King was the ultimate rival. When he played and beat women’s #1 Margaret Court, King felt she had no choice but to take the risk of taking Riggs on. But neither could have foreseen just how wild a circus they would create or what it would mean for so many.
Says screenwriter Simon Beaufoy: “The match was watched by the largest TV audience since the moon landing. It was a massive spectacle, filled with the sort of hoopla that had never been seen before or probably since on a tennis court. Yet, the match was almost a sideshow to the bigger battle that raged in America: man versus woman. I’m not sure there’s been such a clear-cut binary debate since, either in politics or sport!”
For King, that day was a game-changer, and what started that day remains in motion. “Today we’re still having too many of the same discussions,” King points out. “White women still make 78 cents on the dollar, African American women 64, Hispanic and Native American women are at 54. We don’t have a Congress of even 20% women. We have few women CEOs. And what people don’t understand is that when women make less that means entire families make less. It’s a no brainer that it causes families to suffer more, so why do we want that?” I hope the story of this match will continue the dialogue, will bring people together and remind us to think before discounting others for any reason. The things we fought for in 1973 I’m still fighting for and we’ve got to keep pushing.”
The Screenplay And Its Winning Parts
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy is no stranger to stories that combine a comedic edge with social observation. He earned an Academy Award nomination for The full Monty, the riotous story of six unemployed men who form a striptease act to make ends meet; then garnered Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA wins for the 2008 Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire, about an impoverished quiz show contender in contemporary India.
This is Beaufoy’s third collaboration with producer Christian Colson and Danny Boyle. As part of the trio, he has written the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire, co-wrote 127 Hours with Danny and Battle Of The Sexes. Beaufoy started his screenwriting career with The Full Monty for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and has written and collaborated on many screenplays in between, including Among Giants Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, This Is Not A Love Song, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and Everest. He is again collaborating with Danny and Christian on “Trust,” a ten part TV series for FX about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty the Third that is currently filming in Italy.
For Battle of the Sexes, Beaufoy had to chance to excavate not just one of the most important and outlandish sporting events ever but also the personal lives of both Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, revealing how for each the “battle” was about finding their true selves and changing the future.
“What was apparent on the first read,” says producer Robert Graf, “is the way Simon’s script expertly blended the spectacle of the match, the cultural moment of 1970s feminism, and the private issues both Billie Jean and Bobby were grappling with. He combines elements that are comical, culturally significant and are also very human and moving, layering the personal and public and probing the question: how do you control your personal life when you’re thrown into the cauldron of a hot public event?”
Adds Christian Colson: “What I love about Simon’s screenplay is how it reveals that for Billie and Bobbie things were much more complicated than anyone knew. The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was a public circus with farreaching social implications, but for Billie, struggling with her sexuality, and for Bobby, struggling to come to terms with his lost youth, the personal stakes were sky-high. Simon is a humanist and an immensely warm and generous writer. He likes people and he is interested in their flaws, and this informs and elevates all his work.”
Beaufoy notes that he never really followed tennis as a sports fan. “Tennis is amazing to watch for its skill and athleticism, but I confess it wasn’t the tennis that intrigued me,” he says. “It was the contest between these two people, diametrically opposed in almost every way. The way Billie Jean did — and still does — step beyond the world of sports to challenge injustice was bold and frankly magnificent. The stakes for her, both personally and for the women’s movement, were huge. Billie Jean is truly one of the greats and getting to know her was one of the great privileges of making the film.”
King was his primary source and he spent hour upon hour with her – including one early script meeting that lasted 9 hours with just a 10-minute break for a turkey sandwich. “By the end, I could barely speak, write or move, but Billie was just warming up. She could have gone another nine hours,” muses Beaufoy. “That’s the focus of a champion. What surprised me most was her affection for Bobby. She wasn’t really battling him, a man she actually liked, as much as she was battling a whole belief system that men were simply better than women. I did ask Billie to revisit areas of her life that are still uncomfortable to her for obvious reasons. I couldn’t really write the movie without showing the very personal journey she was on – but she was always open, generous and incredibly trusting.”
The more he talked to King the more it stood out for Beaufoy that the story of the match was also the story of a woman confronting her sexual identity and falling in love at the least desirable moment. “The tension between the very public persona that Billie was becoming and her private life is the tension of the film,” he points out. “It’s a film about somebody struggling to come to terms with who they really are when the stakes couldn’t have been higher.”
Beaufoy notes that part of the heroism of King is that she did not seek out the contest with Riggs, nor was the timing right to take such a risk, but she enjoined the battle because she could not refuse a shot at making a difference. “In 1973, her professional life had never been busier and everything was so complicated,” says the writer. “The last thing she needed was to be in the glare of the media spotlight. But Billie has never ducked a fight in her life. When Margaret Court lost to Bobby, Billie had no option but to step up and play. Somebody had to put Bobby in his place and there was only one person to do it.”
The rampant sexism of the day is something Beaufoy got a taste of in his research. “I came across the most appallingly sexist commercials that aired around the time of the match; they really leave you open-mouthed at the way women were publicly debased and humiliated. We’ve definitely improved on that, but it’s obvious we’ve still got more to go,” he says.
The producers saw an immediate affinity between Beaufoy’s words and Faris and Dayton’s sensibilities – one that only intensified as production took off. “We went to Jon and Val for their subtlety, their great eye, and their lightness of touch—as with Simon, there is a generosity to their work which always makes you smile, which is never preachy and always classy,” says Colson.
“They delivered on all that, but they added a real dramatic seriousness too. They insisted that the story should not be presented simply as a comedy, and were always looking to amplify the internal character conflicts and dramatic stress points in Simon’s screenplay. They found just the right tone for movie: dramatic without being strident, and sustaining a lightness of touch without being whimsical.”
Perhaps fittingly, Faris and Dayton admit that this film sparked more battles between themselves than is usual with a couple known for their creative symbiosis – but it also united them. “Val and I probably fought more on this project than on anything we’ve ever done,” laughs Dayton.
“Arguing is always part of our creative process,” points out Faris, “ in the back of our minds I think we were aware of an expectation that I was the spokesperson for women and Jonathan for men, but we never really see it that way. In truth, it’s not a competition. It’s an ongoing dialogue that leads to a shared vision.”