2017 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: What a fantastic opportunity to see the world premiere of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton‘s “Battle of the Sexes” – based on the true story of the 1973 tennis match between the number one ranked female tennis champion, Billie Jean King, and ex-champ and serial gambler, Bobby Riggs – with the legendary tennis star in attendance.
The directors introduced the tennis and women’s rights legend prior to unveiling their film to the world. Emma Stone – who plays King with great swagger and conviction, absolutely capturing her uncertain mannerisms and masculine walk – was also there alongside her co-star Elisabeth Shue, who plays the wife of Riggs (Steve Carell).
The film kicks off amidst the height of the women’s liberation movement, as King and the other women tennis players separate themselves from Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and the professional tennis association that would pay its female athletes one-eighth the salary of its men. On top of King and the other ladies putting their careers on the line to up and start their own league, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), King also finds herself fighting the internal struggle of her sexuality – something in those days that could cost her crucial sponsorship dollars and, subsequently, her career, if word of her secret was to get out.
While not busy promoting her new league by selling the tickets, lining the fields, and perfecting her game, a married King meets and falls in love with hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), complicating her life and creating a distraction to her game.
Meanwhile, 55-year old degenerate gambler and chauvinist Bobby Riggs, played dogmatically by Steve Carell, is trying to find a way to get his name back in the news by challenging the number-one ranked female player, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) – who had recently claimed that title by defeating the preoccupied King in a WTA event – to an exhibition match with a hefty sum of $35,000 to the winner. The contest – later dubbed “The Mother’s Day Massacre” – does not go well for the ladies association, as Riggs handily defeats Court, adding insult to injury on the newly formed league.
Riggs continues to be a big-mouthed spectacle by increasing his offer to a $100,000 prize purse, in hopes to lure King, who had previously denied Riggs’ offer, onto the court. Prior to the Margaret Court defeat, King never identified herself as a feminist, but instead as a tennis player who just happened to be a woman. But against the growing mockery of her cause, King suddenly realizes the greater cause that is at hand, and accepts the challenge in order to save the face of the league she has fought so hard to build. She has the chance to do something great, and not just for women’s tennis.
The Bobby Riggs Circus continues as he does his best to “put the show back in chauvinism” by parading around in outlandish outfits and hosting a myriad of extravagant events in order to hype up the main event. And at this, he is very successful, as the match becomes the single most viewed tennis match in the history of the sport.
“Battle of the Sexes” is a triumphant and timely film, one that has already seemed to capture the political climate and could quite possibly carry itself to the Best Picture win, as a few trusted Oscar experts are debating. It is the type of film that will have plenty of champions, and with it, a lot of number-one votes on Oscar ballots. It is both poignant and powerful and manages to avoid tripping over itself by eluding a sense of self-importance (despite the gravity of the events the film depicts). Stone is certainly a threat to repeat, and quite possibly tops her Oscar-winning performance in last year’s “La La Land.”
Billie Jean King was gracious after the film, staying late to shake hands with many of her fans, both new and old. And why shouldn’t she enjoy a bit of the gratitude bestowed upon her? After all, the weight of the world was on her shoulders, and she was able to prove herself equal to that man, Atlas.
“Battle of the Sexes” is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and opens in theaters on September 22.