For her first post-Oscar role, newly minted Academy Award winner Emma Stone doesn’t disappoint, bringing sensitivity and nuance to her part as Billie Jean King in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ fact-based “Battle of the Sexes.” It’s just too bad that the film — a broad drama that gets a major status boost from the full force of Stone’s performance — isn’t a better fit for the work she’s turning in.
“Battles of the Sexes” essentially stuffs a long-necessary King biopic, one that follows the most personally formative experiences of the tennis champ’s life, into a crowd-pleasing story about the infamous sporting event from which it takes its title. It’s a character-driven drama crammed inside a sports film, and while that sort of engineering has often led to some revelatory offerings (think “Ali” or “The Fighter,” “Rudy” or “The Babe,” and scores more), “Battle” does not join their ranks.
Ostensibly built around the eponymous 1973 tennis match that saw the crusading King face off against showboating former champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) for a televised exhibition match that (quite clearly) played up their differing genders, Dayton and Faris’ film more accurately functions as a King biopic, with occasional appearances by a purposely hammy Riggs. As important as the match was to both King and Riggs, Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay wisely focuses more on all the other things that were happening during King’s life, including grappling with her sexual identity and fighting for equality in the sports world.
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The match is secondary for much of the film, until its third act sags into it, as is the wont of so many sports-centric films.
And the big “battle” is exciting enough, but because of the film’s focus on it (and, again, on Riggs, rendered here as a bit of lovable ham, no matter how many terrible things he said about women during a turning point in their fight for equality), King’s own story gets the short end of the stick, even though it’s the most compelling part of the feature at hand. While the film finds space to explore King’s other issues, troubles, and triumphs, the necessity of fitting them inside a single, event-focused film robs them of much of their power — and its truth.
The nitty gritty details of King’s groundbreaking fight for equality on the courts is distilled to the snappy formation of what would become the Virginia Slims tour and the Women’s Tennis Association. Those events are portrayed here as a fleeting decision that instantly launched a new arm of professional tennis. The real story is more than enough meat for its own biopic, from King’s push for equality to the state of her game when she broke free of the United States Lawn Tennis Association. Even her long-standing rivalry with Margaret Court (who does appear in “Battle,” played by Jessica McNamee) could frame up an entire film, while Dayton and Faris reduce it to a glaringly uncomfortable acquaintance in their film.
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While “Battle” sensitively handles King’s exploration of her sexuality, it also flattens the story in service to the narrative at hand, imagining that the then-married King only realized she was interested in women when a sexy hairdresser (played by a lovely Andrea Riseborough) snips her into both that haircut and a new sexual identity. Again, the real story of King’s sexual identity could inspire its own film: while King realized later in life that she was attracted to women, she had already engaged in a relationship with another woman, her secretary Marilyn Barnett (later, when their relationship was revealed via a lawsuit, King was outed). Weirdly, Riseborough is playing Barnett in the film, though Beaufoy’s script changes around dates and details, seemingly more compelled by getting King’s signature haircut in there, versus the actual truth of her life.
But beyond all that, the necessary (and unnecessary) edits and changes to craft a messy real-life story into a consumable piece of entertainment, Stone is great in the role, finding the humanity and realism in the complicated King, a larger-than-life character who continues to be a pioneer to this day. She stands up to the material (and even the trappings of ’70s-era clothing and hairstyles). It’s one of her best performances to date, an unfussy and deeply felt piece of work, the kind of total inhabitation that shows a dedication to her craft and a real interest in getting it right.
At the film’s recent international premiere at TIFF, Stone was still nervous when she remembered the task of playing someone like King. “It was my first time playing a real person, and that person happened to be Billie Jean King,” the actress said. “No one can live up to Billie Jean King, so I knew that going in.” The pair met — and even practiced tennis together — and Stone shared that King was a willing, helpful guide.
Stone’s performance is the best thing about “Battle of the Sexes” by a mile. Her ease with King’s story — even if it has been handily rearranged to serve a different narrative — is only further proof of her acting chops. They’re strong enough to hint at the first-rate Billie Jean King biopic it should have been. Stone would have aced it.
“Battle of the Sexes” hits theaters on Friday, September 22.