Like so much in pop culture these days, “Battle of the Sexes,” seems specially made for our divisive times. Never mind that the real-life events from the movie took place in 1973.
The drama revolves around the circus-like exhibition tennis match at the Houston Astrodome between the serious 29-year-old standout Billie Jean King and a proudly offensive carnival barker, 55-year-old former Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs.
You don’t have to look hard to draw parallels between that rivalry and the one last year between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Of course, that wasn’t the intention. Hollywood movies aren’t made in a matter of months. The husband-and-wife directorial duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) started working on the movie in 2015, when Trump was just a long-shot contender in a Republican field of 16.
But as filming progressed in tandem with the presidential race, the directors started to get excited about the similarities. In real life, King handily beat the self-proclaimed chauvinist pig. According to every poll, Clinton was about to do the same to another bombastic man with a habit of saying shocking things about women (among other demographic groups).
“We, like everyone, anticipated that Hillary would win, and that this would be a film that’s sort of a victory lap,” Dayton said during a recent phone call. “And Billie Jean’s friends with Hillary so we thought, oh, maybe we’ll have a White House screening.”
And then the election happened.
The movie is about more than the big match, and its other themes echo modern times, too. The story picks up with a pay gap dispute – sound familiar? – between King (Emma Stone) and tennis champ-turned-bigwig Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who argues that the men’s prize money for an upcoming tournament should be eight times more than the female winner’s take.
“The men are simply more exciting to watch,” he says, breezily. “It’s not your fault; it’s just biology.”
“Jack Kramer represents the status quo in the movie,” Faris said. “A lot of the country shared those attitudes about women, and Bobby was just kind of mocking that, or using it and exploiting it.”
This disparity was systemic: King’s battle wasn’t just against one sexist troll fueling a controversy. Her solution was to start a new women’s tour – the Virginia Slims Circuit – much to Kramer’s frustration.
The pay gap in tennis is much narrower today than in other sports and industries, and that’s thanks to the women who took a risk in the 1970s and refused to play for less.
“Had that not happened, you wouldn’t have women’s tennis as prominent as it is,” said Rosie Casals, one of the original players from the Virginia Slims tour, who’s a character in the film. “Sloane Stephens wouldn’t be getting a check for $3.7 million for winning the U.S. Open. If it was up to Jack Kramer, she would have probably been getting a check for $50,000, and she would have been happy.”
Even so, the fight for equal respect continues today. Just look at the hot-tempered John McEnroe, who recently said that if Serena Williams were on the men’s circuit, she’d be ranked No. 700 in the world.
Few knew in 1973 that amidst everything, King was also fighting another, more private battle. Although she was married to a man, she was coming to terms with her attraction to women, which came to a head during an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough).
King didn’t need more stress in her life, but she couldn’t turn down Riggs (Steve Carell), who was gloating after beating another well-regarded female player.
The lead-up to the match parallels Clinton and Trump’s different preparation and tactics for speeches and debates. King takes her training seriously. Riggs, meanwhile, does a nude photo shoot and practices while dressed as Little Bo Peep, bringing real sheep onto the court. He knows that the more outrageous he is, the more the press will pay attention. His rhetoric makes for perfect sound bites: He loves women – in the kitchen and the bedroom, he says. And – OK, fine – they have a place on the tennis court, too, because, “who else will pick up the balls?”
Through it all, the stakes seem much higher for her than for him. She’s trying to make history and challenge an unfair system. He’s just looking for attention.
“He was clearly a chauvinist, but not at the level of his rant,” playing it up for the cameras, Dayton said. “Who knows what will happen in our country, but ultimately Bobby did pay a price – as Trump may later. Maybe his brand will be worthless.”
After King beat Riggs, no woman would play him; an earlier offer to play Chris Evert for $1 million disappeared – and then, so did he.
After she was outed (and not by choice) in 1981, King lost endorsements, and her reputation took a hit.
Dayton and Faris were teenagers when the King-Riggs feud captivated the country. Neither watched, but both remember the era’s sexual politics. Faris recalls being taught in high school health class that homosexuality was a syndrome.
“Isn’t that wild?” Dayton said. “So things have gotten better.”
You can see that, for instance, in Howard Cosell’s dated commentary during the game, which appears in the film from real, archival footage.
“Here comes Billie Jean King – a very attractive young lady,” Cosell said. “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.”
The famous announcer spent much of the match with his arm wrapped around Casals (played by Natalie Morales), who was giving the female counterpoint. Casals remembers how uncomfortable it was standing there while Cosell’s heavy arm rested on her shoulder, not to mention the way he literally talked down to her.
“I know he didn’t think that women belonged in the booth, that’s for damn sure,” Casals recalled. “I was doing my part – they wanted a battle of the sexes on and off the court.”
Dayton added: “We felt it was really important to put the real Howard Cosell in and use exactly what he said, because you almost wouldn’t believe it otherwise. At the time, he was a relatively progressive guy. It’s just a sign of where we were.”
Time can change our perspective, but it doesn’t always take decades. For example, the reaction to the test screening for the movie before the election was very different from the one after. The directors still had a fair amount of work to do after the eariler screening, but they were still struck by how much more positive the feedback was after Trump was elected.
“It was shocking, and you could feel it in the room – the change and how people were sensitized to the subject matter,” Faris said.
Still, they’d have preferred a world in which they could have had that White House screening.
“I would gladly trade a different outcome for a smaller box office,” Dayton said with a laugh.