This article contains minor spoilers for Battle of the Sexes.
In Battle of the Sexes, there’s a sensual scene starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King — in a hair salon.
As the hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), lovingly and intimately cuts Billie Jean’s hair, Billie Jean’s breath hitches. The camera never wavers from Stone’s poignant performance, realizing her feelings for Marilyn as Billie Jean. But she’s married to a man, and she’s never been with a woman before.
This dawning realization is the through line of the movie.
Battle of the Sexes is the new film from filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. It tells the story of the second and most famous Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Stone).
However, while the tennis may be exciting — and it is — it’s the story of Billie Jean King’s coming out, both sexually and as a feminist activist, that carries the emotional weight.
Even Dayton admitted this: ‘We love tennis, don’t get me wrong. But it was the love story that drove us to make this.’
It may surprise some how few scenes Stone and Carell share. Or how long it takes the movie to get to the famed match. This is to the film’s credit, though. It doesn’t rush to the big event — it realizes it’s telling the story of real people, with personal struggles, and exploring those within the context of the match.
Carell is good in the movie (as he always is), but this is Stone’s story to tell.
Overall, both the film and Stone lend King’s story incredible respect and empathy.
Playing a real person has its own set of challenges. Stone plays King with such humanity, though, without making her a caricature in any way. It’s by far one of her most notable roles, especially coming off her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land. She is poised, strong, self-assured, and vulnerable all at once.
In standing up for the rights of female athletes, Billie Jean is never more confident. As she challenges Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer, a leader of professional tennis tours and a doubter of female athletes, she blazes with glory. She knows she’s risking her career, and the careers of the women who join her, but she doesn’t back down.
Her sexuality is trickier to navigate.
The film has its share of heavy-handed plot contrivances. Certain things seem more convenient than they likelier were in reality, but they serve King’s story.
It’s thrilling to watch Billie Jean and Marilyn push their relationship forward, even while battling conflicting emotions over Billie Jean’s non-stop supportive husband, Larry (stoically played by Austin Stowell). There is an ease and naturalness to them, particularly as they get to know one another, physically and emotionally.
In a time where representation is still sorely needed, Battle of the Sexes is something of a fresh of breath air, even in its imperfections and overt script beats.
The overt aspects come especially with Alan Cumming’s character, Ted Tingling. He was a real-life spy and tennis player who transitioned into fashion.
Self-described as a ‘fairy godfather’ to King by Cumming, he certainly comes across that way in the film. Reading how Cumming viewed Tinling and his relationship to King, however, strips away some of the more stereotypical moments to reveal warmth.
Near the end of the film, the two share a tearful embrace, as Ted emphatically tells Billie Jean the world will change and they will be able to love who they want. It’s a little obvious, sure, and in a lesser actor’s performance, might come across more gauche, but Cumming delivers it with such sincerity that it sweeps you away rather than halting you in your tracks.
That’s how the movie treats sexuality and figuring out identity throughout.
Billie Jean’s sexual journey is not a spectacle in the film. It is understandable, it is raw, it is affecting. It is a three-dimensional portrayal of an LGBTI character whose sexuality is important, but not defining.
The movie celebrates King’s accomplishments — coming out, finding a partner, fighting for equality — and right now that is crucial. No more bury your gays, it is time to see a queer woman succeed and get all she wants.