Reigning Oscar champ Emma Stone could well win Best Actress again this year for “Battle of the Sexes,” which premiered on Sept. 2 to rave reviews at the Telluride film festival. Stone transforms herself into the bespectacled Billie Jean King, who defeated Bobby Riggs in a ballyhooed tennis match in 1973 that revolutionized women’s professional sports.
The stakes were high when King, a rising tennis star, faced off against Riggs (Steve Carell, who played Stone’s father in 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love”). Months earlier, Riggs had defeated the top female player of the time, Margaret Court, in straight sets. Unlike that one, this was televised in primetime and ranks as one of the highest rated sports events ever. It became a focal point in the national debate over women’s equality.
The Oscars certainly love a good sports story, especially one with an underdog as evidenced by past Best Picture winners “Rocky” (1976), “Chariots of Fire” (1981) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). But “Battle of the Sexes” is about more than just the tennis match, as it addresses issues of social justice and fairness that are still being debated almost half a century later. And films with a message have always played well with Oscar voters.
“Battle of the Sexes” has an awards-friendly pedigree behind the scenes as well. It’s directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who previously helmed the 2006 Best Picture nominee “Little Miss Sunshine,” which featured Carell. The screenwriter is Simon Beaufoy, who won an Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) and was also nominated for “The Full Monty” (1997) and “127 Hours” (2010). And it is being released by Fox Searchlight, which shepherded “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman” to Best Picture Oscars in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Playing a real-life person has been the key to success for eight of the 16 Best Actress winners this century: Julia Roberts as advocate Erin Brockovich in the film of the same name (2000); Nicole Kidman as writer Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” (2002); Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wournos in “Monster” (2003); Reese Witherspoon as country singer June Carter in “Walk the Line” (2005); Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen” (2006); Marion Cotillard as French chanteuse Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” (2007); Sandra Bullock as do-gooder Leigh Anne Tuohy in “The Blind Side” (2009); and Meryl Streep as British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” (2011).
Before claiming the Oscar for “La La Land,” Stone won at the Golden Globes on the Comedy/Musical side. She is all but certain to prevail there again this year and could once again parlay that win into a repeat at the Oscars. She would be just the third woman in the 90-year history of the Oscars to win Best Actress twice in a row joining Luise Rainer (“The Great Ziegfeld,” 1936; “The Good Earth,” 1937) and Katharine Hepburn (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” 1967 and “The Lion in Winter,” 1968).
Do you think Stone will win again this year? Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.