‘Battle of the Sexes’ Review: In a Hard Year for Women, Emma Stone Provides Reason to Cheer

Telluride Film Festival: Stone has never been better than she is in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ movie about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs

Battle of the Sexes
Fox Searchlight

This has been a hard year for women. It was hard to see the first woman to ever have a shot at winning the presidency attacked by so many forces at once. It was hard to see young feminists turn their back on her and dismiss her history-making run. It was and remains hard to hear the endless yack-yack-yacking of pundits and progressives who can’t stop tearing her apart. How dare she run. How dare she even try.

In that atmosphere arrives Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes.” You might think that the film is a snarky, humorous look at the infamous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Instead, it’s a story about the internal life of a woman getting to know and accept who she really is. But it heads down unexpected roads, at once seductive and melancholy, occasionally confrontational and political.

Anyone who knows anything about Billie Jean King knows two things: She was a tennis champ and she was gay. But “Battle of the Sexes” is by no means a feminist screed. It won’t make you angry if you’re a man and it won’t make you feel alienated from white feminism if you’re a woman of color.

This isn’t really a film about feminism. It’s a film about love. That is the most surprising thing about it.

Stone doesn’t play “gay,” but she does reshape herself — how she holds her body, even how she kisses. We find her lost, but pouring everything into tennis. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Stone is having her hair done by a hairdresser played by Andrea Riseborough. You can almost smell the woman’s perfume and feel the gentle touch of her hands running through King’s hair.

It is such a beautiful scene and the beginning of King’s path of self-discovery. But, of course, no one — especially no one famous — could be “out” back then. That makes “Battle of the Sexes” not just a story of “women’s lib” and “chauvinist pigs,” but also of the fight to love who you love.

Directed by Dayton and Faris who brought “Little Miss Sunshine” to a 2006 Best Picture nomination, and written by Simon Beaufoy (Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire” and nominee for “127 Hours”), “Battle of the Sexes” is one of the best films to screen in Telluride and will very likely be nominated for a handful of Oscars. It has the stuff to go all the way.

At the film’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Billie Jean King received a standing ovation. Her legacy deserves this movie. She remains a women’s rights activist as well as an LGBTQ activist. In 2009, she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with President Obama saying, “We honor what she calls ‘all the off-the-court stuff’ — what she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation — including my two daughters — a chance to compete both on the court and in life.”

To many women who lived through the era of women’s movement and Billie Jean King, this past election was history-making, and devastating. But “Battle of the Sexes” gives you a chance to cheer — for a woman who could play a mean game of tennis, a woman who didn’t back down when she easily could have, and a woman who changed the way the world thought about both female tennis players and gay women.

“Battle of the Sexes” isn’t a wonky, cerebral, screechy film that preaches to its audience. It is pure joy from start to finish, in the hands of two stars who could not be better suited to these roles. Last seen as father and daughter in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” Carell and Stone have great chemistry, even if much of the film they are not even together. But this movie really belongs to Stone, who has never been better. If she hadn’t won the Oscar last year for “La La Land,” she’d most certainly have won for this.

Dayton and Faris’ “Little Miss Sunshine,” like this movie, was about making the most out of what you’re given. They captured something there and they’ve most certainly captured something here, thanks in large part to Stone’s breathtaking turn as a woman who can still command a room. Billie Jean King’s star burns that bright even all of these decades later.