Battle of the Sexes is two movies that have seemingly been combined together in a way that really shouldn’t work, and yet it does. This is largely on the strength of an excellent lead performance by Emma Stone as tennis legend Billie Jean King, as well as a strong supporting cast.
Emma Stone is so so good in Battle of the Sexes, and it’s easy to see why her name is being bandied about for another Oscar. She’s so damn evocative, the way her jaw trembles, it’s really something special to watch. Stone is a special performer, something that’s only highlighted in this film. Though she and Steve Carrell are nominally co-leads, it’s Stone who steals the show.
Carrell is good, mind you, just not quite as captivating as Stone. Carrell not only shares more than a passing resemblance to Bobby Riggs, but his cartoonish style is perfect for the oafish persona that Riggs puts on. It’s a thin line that Carrell has to walk as a character who we’re meant to see not as a villain, but who can unintentionally act as a villain in his own buffoonery. Carrell proves more than able to take on the role of the clown here, ably walking the tightrope he’s given.
Ultimately, there’s a romance drama here, and a sports movie here, and they don’t necessarily blend together all that well. It’s easy to imagine a more straightforward sports drama about the Battle of the Sexes that might be a bit more successful in its elements, with more time and weight given to performances by Bill Pullman as misogynist tennis commentator Jack Kramer, to Margaret Court and Rosie Casals and Gladys Heldman and other figures out of the tennis world.
It’s similarly easy to imagine a film that really hones in on the relationship between Billie Jean King and hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, who becomes her lover. Andrea Riseborough gives a strong performance as Marilyn, and Austin Stowell is strong as Billie’s husband Larry. The film very smartly avoids some of the classic pitfalls of this kind of relationship drama, not putting Larry King in the situation of being the jilted husband, but instead making him loving and accepting of who his wife is.
If the decision to try to make two movies at once fails, it’s certainly not Emma Stone’s fault. She deserves all the awards in the world for this performance. Every time her jaw quivers, it makes you want to cry. I’ve been impressed with Emma Stone ever since her breakout film, Easy A, but she’s really stepped her game up over the last couple of years.