Emma Stone Scores an Ace in Battle of the Sexes

Emma Stone has spoken out about pay inequality in Hollywood and how her male co-stars have taken pay cuts just so she would be fairly compensated. Stone was the perfect choice to portray tennis great Billie Jean King, who decades ago battled the male-dominated sport to level the financial playing field. What’s discouraging is that more than 40 years later, we are still talking about women being paid less than men for comparable work.

King was fighting off the court, too, wrestling with her sexual orientation. Coming out for athletes and celebrities in the conservative 70s, often meant forfeiting lucrative endorsement deals, so the married King hid her affair with another woman. In our current political environment, we are watching as hard fought for freedoms for those in the LGBTQ community are being threatened or rolled back. The message: nothing can be taken for granted. What was won can easily be lost.

Stone certainly makes her case for more-than-equal pay with her performance in the Battle of the Sexes which dramatizes the epic match between King and Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs. While Steve Carell’s turn as Riggs is terrific, Stone dominates the film, showing King’s power on the court and her vulnerability off the court, navigating her personal relationships.

Sarah Silverman and Emma Stone

In the 1970s, King along with other women tennis players were becoming household names and filling up stadiums for their matches. The USTLA (United States Lawn Tennis Association), however, regarded the male matches as main events and the women’s as side shows. When King learns that the men will be competing for cash prizes eight times larger than those for the women, she confronts USTLA official Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and makes good on her promise to start a independent women’s tennis tour. King’s aggressive business partner, Gladys (a role tailored made for Sarah Silverman), lines up an unlikely sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes. The Women’s Tennis Association is up and running.

Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough

When Gladys arranges makeovers for the women at a Los Angeles salon, sparks fly between King and hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). The affair is well underway by the time King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), catches up to the tour. Since the two women are sharing a room, he quickly sums up the situation and takes another room. But he has a warning for Marilyn: tennis is King’s life. Everything else is second place. But there’s no doubt that the passion King finds with Marilyn is missing in her interactions with Larry.

Steve Carell and Elisabeth Shue

Riggs, meanwhile, is miserable being out of the tennis limelight. Married to the wealthy Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who disapproves of his gambling habit, Riggs comes up with a plan to challenge the women’s number one player. King is the best player on the tour, but her affair with Marilyn is a distraction and she’s defeated by Australian Margaret Court (Jessica MacNamee). Court agrees to play Riggs on Mother’s Day, but she’s intimidated by his antics and loses. Riggs is euphoric in victory, sensing momentum. He calls King at midnight and challenges her to a match, the winner taking home $100,000. King resists, but when she realizes that there is something larger at stake than just a face-off between her and Riggs, she agrees.

While Riggs’ preparation involves gobbling hundreds of vitamins and staging publicity stunts – dressing up as Little Bo Peep and herding sheep, for example – King trains hard. The Battle of the Sexes, played in the Houston Astrodome with Howard Cosell doing the play by play, is a huge draw with an estimated 50 million watching in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide. The match, which King wins in three sets, is well staged with enough back and forth to look convincing.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes should not be dismissed as just another feel good sports film. There are important messages here that deserve close scrutiny, now more than ever.

Top photo: Emma Stone and Steve Carell
Photos by Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

About Charlene Giannetti (437 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that completed filming on February 1, 2020. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.