Billie Jean King: "I thought I'd see a woman president"
Carrie Lyell meets tennis legend Billie Jean King
I’m sitting in a dark screening room in Soho, and there are tears streaming down my face. As the credits for Battle Of The Sexes roll and the journalists around me collect their bags and jackets and head for the door, I’m thinking about Billie Jean King and how hard it must have been for her back in 1973. Yes, 90 million people watched her emerge victorious from that tennis match at the Houston Astrodome
against 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, and her victory was an important milestone for women’s liberation, but she was living a double life, and it would be many, many years still before she was able to talk about her sexuality openly and honestly.
A few months later, and I’m pinching myself as I pick up the phone and Billie Jean King – the Billie Jean King – is on the other end. I tell her how much I loved the film, and how I found it incredibly moving. But if it was emotional for me to watch, how must it have felt for her, reliving this euphoric but also incredibly painful time in her life? “I’m not used to it yet, Carrie,” she tells me. “It brings back so much joy and pain. I haven’t watched it that many times. I can’t really. I feel almost overwhelmed. I do feel overwhelmed. Not almost – I am.”
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle Of The Sexes stars Emma Stone as Billie and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, and much of the action – unsurprisingly – focuses on the match itself. But it’s so much more than a film about tennis. It’s about what was going on inside Billie’s head at the time – married to a man but falling in love with her female assistant – at a time when a woman couldn’t even get a credit card on her own. I tell her how moved I was, in particular by a scene towards the end of the film, where Cuthbert, a gay tennis dress designer played by Alan Cumming, comforts Billie and tells her that one day people like them won’t have to live in the shadows.
While Billie says the film is “99% accurate”, this is one scene where some artistic licence might have been taken. “Gay kids didn’t talk to each other about it. Never. No. Not at all,” Billie recalls. “It was really shame-based. In 1973, nobody was talking about anything. You’re paralysed. Shame becomes bigger than life itself. That was a terrible time. Can you imagine? I always think about the shoulders I stand on, before me, how they coped. I always wonder, because we barely were coping.”
Read the rest of our interview with Billie Jean in the November issue of DIVA, available now at divadigital.co.uk.
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