Billie Jean King, Emma Stone relive history of 'Battle of the Sexes'
NEW YORK — Billie Jean King was buzzing around the National Tennis Center that bears her name on Saturday afternoon. There was nothing new about this. It’s what King does best. She moves from person to person — be they dear friend or total stranger — as if she’s their longtime neighbor or perhaps their member of Congress, a role that certainly could have been hers had she wanted to take a step down from her current duties as cultural icon and role model for a generation or two or three.
If you’re ever in the same place as King, there will come a time when you will find yourself in her path. And so it happened that King grabbed my arm to not just say hello but to add a very important piece of social commentary.
“There are women doing the interviews today,” she said excitedly, which is the way King says almost everything. “There weren’t any women sports reporters at the match in 1973.”
The match in 1973, also known as the Battle of the Sexes, is the reason we’ve gathered. King has come to relive all the exhilarating, inspiring and at times infuriating moments surrounding her 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over tennis hustler and self-declared male chauvinist Bobby Riggs, played in the Astrodome in front of a television audience estimated at 90 million on Sept. 20, 1973.
For the first time in all the years I’ve known her, though, she is not talking about this historic moment by herself. This time, she has an enthusiastic sidekick. Academy Award winner Emma Stone was 15 years away from being born when Billie beat Bobby, but there’s no one other than King who now knows more about what it was like to live through those days in 1973.
That’s because Stone did “the deep dive into the Battle of the Sexes itself and everything leading up to it,” she said during an interview with USA TODAY Sports Saturday, sitting side by side with King, someone she is spending so much time with these days they are on the verge of finishing each other’s sentences. “Maybe finishing paragraphs,” Stone offers.
It was nearly two years ago now that Stone pivoted from singing and dancing her way through the filming of La La Land to masterfully turn herself into the then-29-year-old King for the upcoming film, Battle of the Sexes. Not only did she begin devouring every article and film clip she could find about King and the match, she also diligently worked out to add 15 pounds of lean muscle for the role.
The movie, which opens in selected theaters Sept. 22 and nationally Sept. 29, tells the compelling story of King’s personal journey of coming to terms with her sexuality while publicly fighting for equality for women in sports, and by extension, in the culture — a story that should strike a familiar chord in our post-2016 election world.
When announcer Howard Cosell — the real Howard Cosell — appears exactly as he did in the 1973 telecast, you can’t believe the words that come out of his mouth:
“Here comes Billie Jean King — a very attractive young lady. If she ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders and took her glasses off, you’d have someone vying for a Hollywood screen test.”
That was how Cosell, known for his liberalism, introduced one of the world’s top athletes to a massive television audience 44 years ago. At the time, King tried to take it as a compliment.
She is long since past that phase.
“That is so revealing of the time,” King said Saturday. “I mean, come on.”
In this and many other ways, Battle of the Sexes is A League of their Own for the 21st century.
In the next few weeks, you’re going to hear the occasional person, probably a man with a sports radio microphone in front of him, dredge up the old, ridiculous canard that Riggs threw the match, or that it all was just a silly exhibition. They just can’t help themselves. Over the decades, I’ve had more than a few men tell me they thought the Battle of the Sexes was one of the most over-hyped sports events of all time.
“For you, maybe, but not for me,” I’ve always told them.
As a young athlete growing up in Toledo, Ohio, it was the first time I had ever seen a woman beat a man at anything. The next day at our school lockers, I spotted a boy who was a fellow athlete and a good friend.
“We won,” I said to him. “The girls won.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, grimacing and walking away.
For some of us, mostly women, the Battle of the Sexes was a defining moment of our childhood, following as it did just 15 months after President Richard Nixon signed Title IX.
But more than half our nation’s population has no idea just how big of a deal this was. That once included Stone, herself nearly 29, whose mother told her about the match but admits she “wasn’t as aware of the Battle of the Sexes as I probably should have been” before taking on the role.
“The nice thing about doing a film like this,” she said, “is that there’s a whole generation of people who weren’t born before the Battle of the Sexes who are going to learn about this incredible period in history and all the things that have come since, so I’m grateful for that.”
All these years, we thought we were doing well with one Billie Jean King.
Now, lucky us, we have two.
Brennan co-wrote Pressure is a Privilege, Billie Jean King’s self-help book published in 2008. She had no involvement in the movie.