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Arts & Life

'Battle Of The Sexes' Takes Center Court


A new movie out tomorrow dramatizes a defining moment in sports and American culture.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Forty million people are watching the battle you've all been waiting to see.

EMMA STONE: (As Billie Jean King) Yeah, I'm done talking. Let's play.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The Battle of the Sexes.

GREENE: This was the 1973 tennis match in which Billie Jean King triumphed over her male opponent, Bobby Riggs. The film is called "Battle Of The Sexes." It stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell. It's directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. They're the husband-wife duo best known for "Little Miss Sunshine." Their new movie is nonfiction, and imagine the position they were in. They were making a film about a woman who carried the weight of celebrity and feminism even as she was exploring her own sexuality. And the real Billie Jean King was right there to watch how they were portraying her life. I asked the directors if they were nervous.


JONATHAN DAYTON: Ho ho ho (ph).

FARIS: Oh, it was - I felt like I didn't relax for 2 1/2 years. I think I just had this, you know, kind of hanging over me. Like, can we do her life justice? And you know, it's just - there was a lot of pressure. But I think the best moment for me in this whole process was watching the movie at Telluride with her and an audience, and it was the beginning of her completely embracing the movie, and it's just the greatest thing. She calls the whole group of us Team BOTS.


FARIS: Team BOTS, yeah.

DAYTON: "Battle Of The Sexes," yeah.

GREENE: It's a lovely acronym.


GREENE: OK, so Billie Jean King had a husband in 1973, but a romance was developing with someone else. This is actress Emma Stone playing the tennis star as she's getting her hair done before an event.


ANDREA RISEBOROUGH: (As Marilyn Barnett) What do you want?

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) What do you mean?

RISEBOROUGH: (As Marilyn Barnett) With your hair - what do you want to do with it?

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) Oh. It does - doesn't matter. You can just get it out of my face.

RISEBOROUGH: (As Marilyn Barnett) You don't care about how you look, someone as pretty as you?

STONE: (As Billie Jean King) Uh, I'm not pretty - I mean, I don't - I thank you for saying that.

DAYTON: It began with conversations with Billie Jean, but very quickly, we realized that Billie Jean, who's now in her 70s, is a really fully realized person and that the Billie Jean of 1973 was very confused and split. So at a certain point, we kind of took a break from our conversations with Billie Jean and really focused on who she was back then.

And Emma is in this really incredible place in her career where she's really welcoming a challenge and - you know, not only the physical challenge because she had to transform herself into a pro athlete, but also just the emotional range that she had to travel.

GREENE: I'm just so interested in this idea that Billie Jean was there helping you as best she could, but there was only so far she could go because she wasn't feeling those tensions from 1973 anymore. She is a fully realized person.

FARIS: Well, and it was a painful time for her. She said she hadn't watched the match in 25 years.

GREENE: She hadn't watched it in 25 years. Oh, my goodness.

FARIS: No, yeah. She'll say, you know, she is a forward-thinking person. She's always looking forward. She doesn't really dwell that much on the past, so I think this was actually not easy for her to kind of revisit and relive some of these memories. And it made the process very scary for us at times because we were forcing her to revisit it, and it wasn't easy.


STEVE CARELL: (As Bobby Riggs) Now, don't get me wrong. I love women in the bedroom and in the kitchen, but these days, they want to be everywhere. They want to be doing everything, and it's got to stop. And Bobby Riggs is the man to stop it. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Custer's last stand. This is the lobber versus the lever.


GREENE: Bobby Riggs - I mean, I don't think I'm exaggerating to say he was a washed-up, sexist, gambling addict.


FARIS: But other than that, he's a great guy.

DAYTON: That's a good place to start.

GREENE: That's a good place to start, yeah. Well, I mean, but Steve Carell - I don't know. There were moments in this film where he was playing this role where I almost was feeling some sympathy. Did you mean for me to be feeling that emotion?

DAYTON: Oh, yeah. I mean, we made a decision very early on not to make this about good guys and bad guys, that there was a complexity that, you know, for us, made it much more compelling. And Bobby was this lost soul. He felt like the world has passed him by. He was a tennis champion in 1939, and then the war broke out, and so he missed sort of his prime playing years.

So we all knew the public facade of Bobby. And what was interesting to us, just as it was with Billie Jean's story, is that there was a whole background to him and reasons for his acting out. And it's not to say he wasn't a chauvinist on some level. He was. But it was a lot of bluster.

GREENE: I think about a few months ago, the tennis star John McEnroe came onto our air, and was talking to my colleague Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition and said that Serena Williams would be like 700th in the world if she played on the men's circuit. What do you make of that? Because I think people look back to the Battle of the Sexes and think that so much changed, but that makes me wonder what has changed.

FARIS: During the process of making this, we were constantly looking at that - well, you know, how much has changed? These things keep coming up, and the issues that we're dealing with in the film are - I don't think they're ever going to actually be completely resolved. And I guess that's part of the point is that, you know, you just have to keep fighting for these things.

DAYTON: This was one battle in a series of battles that continue.

FARIS: Yeah. And, you know, it's always surprising, too, who those kind of statements come from because I think of John McEnroe as being, you know, a fairly progressive guy.

GREENE: Well, before I let you go, you know, when you're a married couple and you make a movie called "Battle Of The Sexes," I just have to ask about your own relationship. Is your marriage a battle of the sexes?

DAYTON: It's...

FARIS: (Laughter) It would be a better story if it were.

GREENE: (Laughter).

DAYTON: It's a light skirmish.

FARIS: It's like...

DAYTON: You know, I mean, it's funny because raising our kids, we would, a lot of times, be in the car - we had a van - and we would be talking about a project, and our kids would be sitting in the back. And we would be arguing about a point.

FARIS: ...A heated discussion.

DAYTON: And our kids would say, you know, stop fighting. And we weren't fighting, we were just exploring it.

GREENE: You were animated (laughter).

DAYTON: Yeah, we were just exploring a subject.

FARIS: We care a lot.

DAYTON: But that's really one of the best parts of a collaboration, is that you can explore something. And, you know, we have a rule that whoever's the most passionate wins. And it's - you know, I still to this day, after decades of working with Val, you know, am surprised by what she has to say, and...

FARIS: It is a little like a tennis match. So, you know, it's just the constant...

DAYTON: ...Back and forth.

FARIS: Yeah, batting the ball back and forth - but it's what we like to do.


GREENE: Those were directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Their new film is called "Battle Of The Sexes." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.