Carrie Lyell meets tennis legend Billie Jean King

BY CARRIE LYELL

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 collects 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.”

I can’t imagine, I tell her. I can’t imagine because people like her and those who came before have made it so much easier for people like me to come out and live openly without shame. “Young people, they’re just going for it!” the 73-year-old squeals enthusiastically. “I love it. They talk about it, and they’ve also turned a very negative word – queer – into a positive. You never would say that in our day. Now they embrace it and have made it proper and popular and I think it’s great. They’re so free. The millennials and the Gen Z are the greatest generations ever. Ever.”

We talk about Margaret Court, the Australian tennis great and a contemporary of Billie’s who won more major titles than any other player – male or female – in history. Now 75 and a Pentecostal minister, she’s played in the film by Jessica McNamee, and it’s clear she doesn’t approve of Billie’s “friendship” with Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough. What does Billie make of her recent comments about LGBT people, and the calls from some earlier this year to rename the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne? “I really tried to help her get the name on centre court,” remembers Billie. “I thought they didn’t do her justice. Girls usually get the second banana, you know how that works. They gave her a beautiful court but it’s not the number one court and she’s won more grand slams than anyone. I was fighting for her. I’ve stuck up for her. But the things she’s said lately are just beyond my comprehension. Especially when she talked about our trans community. I can’t take that anymore. You can’t talk about my community like this. Our community. You have to stop. I was very much into Christianity was a young girl so I understand her but that to me [is not Christian]. I’m a big believer in acts of kindness and I don’t think she’s being kind. When she says trans people are ‘of the devil’? I’m sorry, stop right there. We’re all god’s children, all of us, including the LGBTQ+ community, so just stop. Stop, stop, stop on that Margaret. I’m upset that she could be a minister and not to be kind to everyone. I don’t get that. I know if Jesus Christ was on the earth today he would be shocked to hear some of the things that go around. You can take anything from the Bible and twist it and make it sound it’s god’s work even though it’s really what you want. But ‘judge not that ye be judged’ just says it all.”    

Back to the film – what was it like working with Emma Stone? Did Billie teach her to play tennis? “I helped her a little bit,” Billie laughs. “But she’s a fast learner and she has an amazing attention to detail. She decided not to spend too much time [with me] and she did the right thing because she didn’t want to get to know me at almost 74. She needed to get to know me as a 29 year old. She said, ‘Billie, I’m so sorry if I hurt your feelings, you know I had to stay away’. And I said, no, I got it. You’ve got to process their own way. I thought she was brilliant in making that decision.” Could Emma win a point or two, I ask cheekily. “Right now? Anybody could beat me in a set,” Billie roars. 

The two have become close friends, spending a lot of time together to promote the film, and Billie talks so warmly of Emma as well as the rest of the cast. She regales me with tales of going to Alan Cumming’s cabaret bar in New York with Emma and the cast and crew after they’d been Paul McCartney concert. “Emma and Alan were singing a song and Paul with playing his harmonica,” she laughs. “Paul and his wife Nancy said ‘Let’s go!’ and everybody started dancing, jumping up. They had great music. It was quite an evening! That was really fun. I wish the world could be like that. Nobody cares who’s what. Let’s go.”

Like that night in Club Cumming, Battle Of The Sexes ends on a high, and leaves the audience full of optimism for the future. It’s a metaphorical fist pump for feminism. But we know how this story ends. I’m interested to know what she thinks this film can teach us, in the context of a Trump presidency, the trans military ban, attacks on queer identities globally and the many other challenges facing women in 2017.

Billie tells me the film was finished in June 2016, at a time when “everybody thought Hillary was going to win” and believes it’ll resonate with audiences even more so because she didn’t. “[Hillary’s defeat] has awakened people. I hope this movie will remind us that we’re not finished yet. Every generation has to fight. I thought I would see a woman president in my lifetime. When I was a very young girl, about 15, I remember an elderly woman telling me she hoped someday we’d have a woman president and said, ‘But you’ll get to see one’. Now I’m thinking, I don’t know. I don’t think I will.”

Would she consider running, I ask? After all, President Billie Jean King has a nice ring to it. “I would in a heartbeat if I were younger. I’m too old now, but I would have in the 70s. Except for my sexuality. That kept me [from running]. One thing you have to do if you’re going to run is tell the truth, and do you think a gay person would’ve had a chance in the 1970s? I don’t think so!” I tell her I’m not sure the US is ready now – after all, if they won’t elect a woman, what chance does a lesbian have? “Maybe not yet, but we gotta keep trying,” she says optimistically. “People have to see it to be it. Even if you don’t win, you’ve brought it forward.”

Billie’s actions undoubtedly changed women’s sport – and the world – for the better. So what is one thing DIVA readers can do today to change the world, I ask? She laughs. “I don’t know – I’m learning from you guys now. It’s your turn to teach me!”

This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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