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MOVIES Gender politics focus of 'Battle' royale
by Lawrence Ferber
2017-09-27

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There's a scene toward the end of 1970s-set Battle of the Sexes in which gay fashion designer Cuthbert Collingwood "Ted" Tinling tells closeted tennis champ Billie Jean King that the times will change and, eventually, queer people shall live and love openly: After all, she was one of the people changing them.

How prescient Tinling was.

Directed by Little Miss Sunshine's wife-and-husband team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, and scripted by Simon Beaufoy ( The Full Monty; Slumdog Millionaire ), Battle of the Sexes revisits the 1973 earth-moving tennis match between twentysomething King ( Emma Stone ) and fiftysomething Bobby Riggs ( Steve Carrell ), a former men's champ turned showboating chauvinist and hustler, which takes place as the married and deeply closeted King experiences a first lesbian love with a Los Angeles hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett ( Andrea Riseborough ). The match would ultimately score a major point for gender equality in the sport, while King would go on to become an out icon.

"It's a sports movie, but frankly what got us interested in this was to tell Billie Jean's personal story," said Dayton. "The thing people hadn't heard before."

Indeed, the film tackles King's profound realization that she is other than straight; her tortured and complicated love triangle with Marilyn and husband Larry King ( Austin Stowell ); the endless stink eye she received from virulently homophobic Aussie tennis rival Margaret Court ( Jessica McNamee ); and King's passionate efforts to bring gender equality to society and her sport. The film actually commences with a 1970 rift between the time's dominant male-run tennis association, the USLTA, under which women received a mere fraction of the prize money male players did at tournaments. King subsequently formed the Virginia Slims Circuit with eight other women later dubbed the "Original 9" and World Tennis Magazine publisher Gladys Hellman ( Sarah Silverman ), which became the Women's Tennis Association ( WTA ) tour by 1973.

King was involved with the film's creation early on—an extensive session with Beaufoy during the scripting stage, reading subsequent drafts, viewing early cuts—and weighed in throughout the process. "She was very involved, and it was difficult for her," Dayton said, "because this was a really hard time in her life and she hasn't really revisited it. She said she hadn't seen the match in 25 years, and the relationship with Marilyn was fraught."

Indeed, the relationship with Barnett, who was known as King's assistant professionally, has been characterized by many as toxic and completely deteriorated in the subsequent years. It served as catalyst for King coming out publicly in 1981, when Barnett filed a palimony suit that claimed she was owed a Malibu home and lifetime financial support. The resulting publicity saw King lose potential endorsements and the legal fees proved devastating. King, still married to Larry at the time, characterized Barnett as mentally unstable—a paraplegic due to an accident by this time, she reportedly attempted suicide by jumping off a building—and King ultimately won the case. Today, King is happily partnered with Ilana Kloss, a fellow former tennis champ and current commissioner of co-ed tennis league, WTT.

Despite the unfortunate way things turned out for the relationship and Barnett, the filmmakers focused on the sunniness of their early days together, "because it was a key moment for Billie Jean, and we wanted to celebrate her finding her authentic self and not get locked up in what happens later," says Dayton. "We're really telling the story of this particular time in her life. And now that its finished and she can watch the movie with an audience, I think it's been an incredibly positive thing for her."

English actress Riseborough—who previously co-starred with Stone in 2014's Birdman ( her credits also include Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals and Madonna's W.E. )—admitted she tried to focus on the Marilyn of those happier early days, and keep what followed on the periphery.

"None of us know where our lives will be in ten years no matter how we plan or imagine things," she opines. "We have no idea what facets of our personalities might come out. The relationship with Marilyn awakened something in Billie Jean. That was a huge basis for how I played her. Freedom and liberty and the hope of the early 70s, she embodies all of that in our film. I felt she was incredibly grounded and earthy, but she had lightness, was ethereal, and hopeful, and free-spirited. Apparently, Marilyn had those qualities, Billie Jean told me since then."

In constructing the film, the makers took significant artistic license with the timeline of real events, especially in regards to the relationships depicted ( including that of Riggs and wife Priscilla, played by Elisabeth Shue ), for emotional resonance. To play King, Stone trained extensively in tennis for four months, gaining fifteen pounds of muscle in the process, while extensively researching and spending face time with the icon. Yet although Stone imbued her performance with subtle King-isms—the pitch of her voice, body language, gait, and smile—the filmmakers elected not to go the Monster route of extensive makeup and hair work to fully transform Stone into the freckled, and as Faris diplomatically puts it, "less stylish haircuts" of King at the time. "We made a creative decision to avoid the mullet," says Dayton.

"I think to get that mullet we would have had to put so much hair on Emma," Faris elaborates, "and deal with the logistics of wigs and prosthetics. It's not so much about making her look like Billie Jean exactly."

Riseborough also had the opportunity to spend personal time with King, although not until after production wrapped. She admitted that having King's personal support for the production was important to all involved, and finds her to be a profoundly inspirational figure. "You spend five minutes around her and you want to go into your life and start punching walls, she's so motivating," Riseborough shared. "Billie said that I was eerily like Marilyn. I'm very pleased with that."

For the gripping climactic match, shot to evoke 1970s sports TV, pro players Kaitlyn Christian and Vince Spadea doubled for Carrell and Stone, recreating their respective characters' 1970s playing styles ( from the style and weight of racquets to tennis court surfaces, everything about the game has changed since then ). Christian also stood in for Stone during a recreation of King's tense match with Court ( Lauren Kline doubled for McNamee during this scene ).

Court, who segued from her tennis career to that of Pentecostal minister, has been actively rallying against same-sex marriage in Australia—a non-binding survey of the country's population on whether same-sex marriage should be legal is underway, and could motivate politicians to actually move ahead with legislation—and made international press recently for her proclamation that gays "want marriage because they want to destroy it" and somehow that will lead to eradication of Mother's Day, Father's Day, Easter, and Christmas to boot.

"We were a little worried that we were going too far with portraying her homophobia," Dayton noted, "but she's been very good at making us feel comfortable that we haven't exaggerated anything."

One supporting character whose life absolutely reads stranger than fiction—and easily deserves his own film—is Tinling, the Original 9's dress designer who served as a British spy during WWII, pro tennis player, tennis historian/commentator, designer ( he designed Martina Navratilova's 1979 Wimbledon dress ), and author during his seventy nine years ( he died in 1990 ). Cumming plays Tinling as friend and sort of queer mentor to King, and delivers one of the most memorable, moving lines at the end.

"We just scratched the surface [with him]!" Dayton said. "There were so many interesting people [within this story] and they all deserved more time, but that was part of the fun of this—to throw them all together and keep all these balls in the air as we tell this particular story."


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