Spouses Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris seemed destined to be tagged in promos for any new film they made as "the team behind Little Miss Sunshine." No more. The pair has directed scores of music videos and documentaries and runs a company that creates award-winning TV commercials. They've made just three features, however, and this is the best. From here on, I'd guess, their promos will say "the team behind Battle of the Sexes."
Fall has finally made it to the multiplex. Time for movies that turn out to be awards contenders. Even the ones that don't will reek way less than the dreck late summer sent our way. Blade Runner 2049 and Battle of the Sexes couldn't be less alike, but both are welcome signs of the season's change.
This is an exceptional film, insightfully conceived and built on a beautifully written script by British Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire). It doesn't hurt that Emma Stone and Steve Carell do perhaps the most exquisite work of their careers. Each delivers a richly layered, ridiculously appealing performance.
Stone captures Billie Jean King's essence at a pivotal juncture in her professional and personal life. At 29, she was the world's top-ranked women's tennis star and, apparently, happily married. The filmmakers do a superb job of illuminating her evolution into a leader in the women's movement and an (eventually) out lesbian. For all its comic cultural satire, the movie's heart is a love story. Andrea Riseborough costars as the stylist who helped change not just the way King wore her hair but the way she lived.
Carell tackles a tricky job here. Bobby Riggs was a complex figure — a Wimbledon champion, compulsive gambler, showman and self-promoter. He was 55 in 1973, when he tapped the country's zeitgeist for his million-dollar idea: Defeat the No. 1 women's player and prove once and for all the superiority of men.
I vividly recall the media coverage of his provocative stunts and boasts. What I was too young to realize was that Riggs was largely mocking male chauvinism, not espousing it. Most of the big talk about a woman's place being in the kitchen or bedroom was calculated to generate publicity and interest in the match. He wanted to make a buck, not a statement.
But his shenanigans put King in a tough spot. She'd rejected his initial proposal. Her goal, after all, was to get people to take female athletes seriously. After Riggs played and beat Margaret Court, King realized it fell to her to set the record straight and agreed to play under certain conditions. One put fellow player Rosie Casals in the control booth with Howard Cosell. The rest is history.
Which, we know, has a habit of repeating itself. Battle of the Sexes isn't just great fun; it is, I regret to report, timely. What a shock to hear some of the dismissive, demeaning comments made by the legendary sportscaster. Even more appalling is the resemblance they bear to things being said and done in the Oval Office today, like the administration's assault on women's reproductive rights, its ban on military service by transgender Americans and its repeal of protections against sexual discrimination in the workplace.
King more than merits this big-screen tribute to her playing, her work for social justice and the progress she made for the women's movement. What a shame that, almost half a century after that match, it feels like Riggs ran for president. And this time came out on top.