Telluride: 'Battle of the Sexes' Offers a Battle of Oscar-Contending Performances

The biggest crowd-pleaser of the 2017 festival could propel Emma Stone (who won a best actress Oscar earlier this year) and Steve Carell (a best actor Oscar nominee two years ago) back into contention.
Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
'Battle of the Sexes'

There has been no greater crowd-pleaser so far at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival than Battle of the Sexes, the latest film from the husband-wife directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (best known for 2006's best picture Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine), which had its world premiere at the Galaxy Theatre on Saturday.

The drama, which was written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and which Fox Searchlight will release Sept. 22, chronicles the personal and professional challenges faced in the 1970s by tennis great and equal rights activist Billie Jean King. It specifically focuses on her famous 1973 showdown with Bobby Riggs, a former world No. 1 who suggested that he could beat any current female tennis professional. Thanks to winning performances by Emma Stone and Steve Carell; the enthusiastic backing of King herself, who received a standing ovation when she was introduced before the screening; and the timeliness of a story pitting a dignified woman against a male chauvinist (ring any bells?), the film may be able to penetrate further into the awards season than its early mixed reviews might suggest — not unlike 2009's The Blind Side and 2011's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to cite but two recent examples of films that scored picture and acting Oscar noms despite low scores. (For the record, Stone will be pushed as a lead performer, but Carell, who has less screen time, will be pushed as a supporting performer.)

Dayton and Faris' first film based on fact faced two major challenges out of the gate: making Stone look like King (everyone knows what King looks like, but few remember what Riggs, who died in 1995, looked like), and making both principal actors look like professional-level tennis players (the failure of which has sunk many another movie involving tennis). Through the use of what appear to be somewhat false teeth, big eyeglasses and change in posture and walk by Stone, mission 1 was accomplished. And through cinematography that largely skates around showing Stone and Carell hitting tennis balls from close up — as opposed to outside of the frame or from so far away that the faces of their presumptive doubles are blurred — mission 2 is accomplished well enough. (Carell, whose breakthrough film role came in Dayton and Faris' Little Miss Sunshine, is known to be a country club-level player, and may have performed more of his own scenes.)

I'm a huge tennis buff myself, volunteered as a ball boy at a professional tennis tournament for many years, played on my high school and college teams, studied the game and thought I knew all of the important things there are to know about its history. (I also can't resist mentioning that my mother was one of the top tennis players in South Africa at the same time that King was coming up, and once played against her.) But even I learned a great deal about King and her hugely important role in the sport's history from the film — and felt as moved as the many sniffling people around me, thanks to the story and the fine work of Stone, in particular, and Carell, as well. In a year in which many are feeling down about equal rights for women, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, a TV show addressing those concerns, has ridden to the top echelon of Emmy contenders, and now a film doing the same has joined the Oscar race.