Battle of the Sexes retells an event in American history that's so bizarre, it doesn't quite seem true 40 years later.
The film focuses on the nationally televised 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match in which 29-year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) beat 55-year-old former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in three straight sets.
"The actual match was a pure pantomime, outright silly. Yet what was going on underneath was incredibly serious," says the movie's screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy. "That win had a huge sociological effect."
Beaufoy capped his research by sitting down with King for a marathon interview before writing the screenplay. (Riggs died at age 77 in 1995.)
"I'd say 99% of it they got right," says King, 73. "They certainly captured the essence."
Some key points of accuracy:
Their grand entrance actually was that bizarre
King really did ride into the Houston Astrodome on a feather-adorned Cleopatra litter carried by four bare-chested hunks. Promoter Jerry Perenchio suggested the absurd entrance.
"He said to me, 'I know you’re a feminist. So you probably won’t get on this Egyptian litter, will you?' " King recalls. "I said, 'Yes, I love it! Let’s go.' He was shocked. I got on it, and we walked out."
Riggs entered in a rickshaw drawn by young women.
"We really brought the entertainment factor to the match and made it exciting to people," says King.
The net exchange of gifts went down
King found out that Riggs, who was paid $50,000 to wear a Sugar Daddy jacket during the match, intended to give her a giant Sugar Daddy candy on a stick. Perenchio had a small pig for King to present him in exchange.
"I said, 'Are you kidding, you have that?' That was better than anything I could think of," says King. "I named it Robert Larimore Riggs, Bobby's formal name, and put a little ribbon around his neck. It was so cute."
She made Perenchio promise that the pig would never end up "as ham on a table. Let it live a long life at a farm. They gave it to an Oklahoma farmer."
The tennis points ring true
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made a 10-minute video of the real periods of play they wanted to depict. Stone and Carell played similar rallies (sequences of back-and-forth shots) under the guidance of an instructor, using the techniques and strategy of their respective players.
"We experimented with doing the exact points, but it looked fake," says Dayton. "It was important that the players not anticipate where the ball was going. In the end, we played each point like a real match, not knowing who would win."
Billie Jean's tennis whites were spot-on
King's actual match apparel is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. But she was impressed with the completely correct costume Stone wore — right down to audacious blue-suede tennis shoes.
"I was so surprised, it was an exact replica," says King.
There was some creative license taken (SPOILER alert!)
King did get a pre-match haircut from her hairdresser girlfriend Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). But it wasn't "five minutes before the match," says King. Nor did King break down and cry alone in the locker room as Stone does after the historic win.
"They kept me so busy after that, but that’s how I was feeling, such relief," says King. "Emma captured it perfectly."