Putting Howard Cosell Into Battle Of The Sexes Was A Lot Harder Than You'd Think

Battle of the Sexes Emma Stone Steve Carell

While most of the historical figures who appear in Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's Battle of the Sexes are portrayed by actors doing some degree of impression, that can't be said for famed sports announcer Howard Cosell. Rather than finding a performer to mime Cosell's game calling for the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the film instead uses archive footage and some CGI wizardry to get the job done, and the results are rather impressive. As I recently learned from the directors, however, the challenge of manipulating Howard Cosell's likeness was nothing compared to getting the likeness rights so that they could use the footage:

Jonathan Dayton: It was very important to us to get the real Howard.Valerie Faris: The challenge was the estate - not so much technical.Jonathan Dayton: We wrote sort of a love letter to the family, and very sincerely said, 'Look, this man was an icon of the time, and we really want to do him the honor of being in it, not just some comedian [doing an impression]... There are so many, and they're all terrible!Valerie Faris: And he was like 6'5" or something. Big guy.

The Battle of the Sexes domestic press junket was held in Los Angeles this past weekend, and it was during a sit-down with Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton that I learned how Howard Cosell found his way into the new movie. Curious about the inclusion of the famed broadcaster, I asked about the challenge of bringing that part to life, and they explained that it took an impassioned letter to Cosell's family urging them to lend their legendary relative's legacy to the new film. Clearly this was enough to move the members of the estate, given what we see in the finished cut (if not, they certainly must have some explaining to do).

During the Battle of the Sexes tennis match in 1973, Howard Cosell called the game alongside tennis star Rosemary Casals. Unlike Cosell, Casals is played by an actress in the movie -- specifically Natalie Morales -- which where the digital wizardry became involved. Watching Battle of the Sexes, your brain reminds you that Howard Cosell is definitely dead, but the film still does a good job blending the fiction with the reality.

Jonathan Dayton also spoke to the role that Howard Cosell plays within the larger themes of Battle of the Sexes, specifically the fact that much of his commentary heavily favored Bobby Riggs and dismissed Billie Jean King (which Rosie Casals did her part to course correct in her responses). The director noted that some of what Cosell says during the match may sound sexist, but the reality is that his mindset and what he was saying is perfectly representative with common discourse at the time. Said Dayton,

He was a relatively liberal guy, but some of the things he says point out just where we were [systematically]. So it's not so much a dig against him, so much as about what women were up against.

Battle of the Sexes, which stars Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Elisabeth Shue, and a litany of fantastic character actors, arrives in theaters this Friday, September 22nd. Between now and then stay tuned for more from my interview with Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton!

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.