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Telluride Review: Emma Stone Scores a Grand Slam in Battle of the Sexes

It’s been a hard year for women. It was hard to see the first woman in America who ever had a clear shot at winning the presidency be attacked by so many forces at once. It was hard to watch young feminists turn their backs on Hillary Clinton and dismiss her history-making run. It remains hard to hear the endless yack-yack-yacking of pundits and far-left progressives who still can’t stop tearing her apart. How dare she run. How dare she even try.

In today’s vitriolic climate, some may have expected Battle of the Sexes to be a snarky, humorous look at the infamous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Instead, it’s a sensitive story about the internal life of a woman getting to know and accept who she really is. Rather than take a familiar path well-traveled, 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. 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. The reason being this isn’t really a film about feminism – it’s a film about love. That is the most surprising thing about it.

If Emma Stone had not already won the Oscar last year for La La Land, she’d most certainly be a frontrunner to win Best Actress for this. She doesn’t play “gay,” but she does reshape herself: how she holds her body, even how she kisses. We find a woman who’s adrift in her personal life, so she focuses on pouring everything into tennis. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Billie Jean is having her hair done by her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough). You can almost smell the woman’s perfume and feel the gentle touch of her hands running through King’s hair. It’s such a beautiful scene, serving as a signpost to the beginning of King’s path of self-discovery. Of course, no one – especially no one famous – could be “out” back then. So Battle of the Sexes becomes far more than a clash between “women’s lib” and “chauvinist pigs.” It’s about the more profound battle we all wage to love whomever we love.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who brought Little Miss Sunshine to a 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 here at the 44th Telluride Film Fest and will very likely be nominated for several of Oscars. And you know, it has the stuff to go all the way.

Billie Jean King was in attendance at the premiere of Battle of the Sexes and received a standing ovation. Her legacy deserves a movie this good to honor her many achievements. She remains a women’s rights activist as well as an LGBTQ activist. In 2009 she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Obama in his citation said, “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 ’70s era of the women’s movement and can recall what Billie Jean King went through firsthand, last year’s election was a reminder of how we’re expected to hold our regard for history-making women in reserve. Lest they be accused of being ruled by their vaginas, women were not even allowed to cheer that a woman came so close to such a milestone. But Battle of the Sexes grants us that 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.

Apparently, there were many who believed Bobby Riggs threw the game to wriggle out of his gambling debts, and then lived to regret it. Others say there is no way he would have risked his reputation doing that. American culture still has a hard time with the idea that women can sometimes beat men, fair and square. It isn’t so much that men don’t like women, as King explains in the movie. But it’s when women try to take a little bit of what men have that sends them spinning. King wasn’t fighting to be “as good as” men, she said. She was fighting for the respect she deserved as a powerful and adept tennis player instead of a “cute little lady in a skirt.”

Battle of the Sexes isn’t a wonky, cerebral, screechy film that preaches at 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 they are not even together through much of the film. But the movie really belongs to Emma Stone, who has never been better.

Dayton and Faris were last seen in the Oscar race way back in 2006, eleven years ago, with Little Miss Sunshine. That movie, like this one, was about making the most out of what you’re given. They captured something unique with Little Miss Sunshine, and they’ve most certainly captured something special once again, thanks in large part to Stone’s breathtaking turn as Billie Jean King, a woman who can still command a room because her star burns that bright, even all of these decades later.