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Toronto International Film Festival

Fox Searchlight parties with the stars of ‘Battle of the Sexes’ and ‘The Shape of Water’

Day 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — Fox Searchlight feted its latest offerings, including the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tale Battle of the Sexes, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, starring Tyrion Lannister (er, Peter Dinklage) with a swanky party Sunday night.

The studio held the party, a fixture here at the Toronto International Film Festival for more than 30 years, in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which was specially built for opera and ballet performances. In attendance: Octavia Spencer, Billie Jean King, Andy Serkis, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Sarah Silverman, Zachary Quinto, Natalie Morales, Michael Shannon, James McAvoy, Frances McDormand and Bill Pullman.

So nobody, basically.

I went with another writer who warned me not to eat dinner because the food would be great. And there’d be plenty of it, because if there’s nothing else reliable about Hollywood types, they don’t really eat. Journalists, on the other hand, are shameless that way. Studio parties are a curious mix of industry professionals, actors and writers, and mostly you’re trying to find a good way to butt into famous people’s conversations before you wander off to the bar or grab an hors d’œuvre from a caterer’s tray. Oh, and it’s also a good way to see how tall people are in real life. McAvoy, for instance, is quite short. The women, of course, are all skinnier than seems humanly possible, but you knew that.

Anyhow, both Battle of the Sexes and The Shape of Water are hot tickets here, and I managed to catch both on Monday.

Battle of the Sexes

Courtesy of TIFF

The script for Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, The Full Monty) can feel a bit obvious, a common occurrence in biopics where people’s lives get boiled down to their Wikipedia essentials. For example, we see Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), King’s WTA rival, in conversation with her husband about their suspicion that King is a closeted lesbian:

Barry Court (James McKay): Isn’t she ashamed?

Margaret Court: That’s exactly what she is. And her game’s gonna fall to pieces.

And then five minutes later, that’s exactly what happens, and King loses her title to Court.

The best part of Battle of the Sexes, which is directed by the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is the titular faceoff between King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell). Dayton and Faris have faithfully recreated the 1973 exhibition match, which took place in the Houston Astrodome, right down to the Vegas-style plumage and cabana boys, and Riggs’ ridiculous jacket plugging Sugar Daddy candy. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but Battle of the Sexes tends to exaggerate the size difference between Riggs and King. Carell’s Riggs is a bit hulking and over-the-hill, while Stone appears daintier than King in her prime.

But the big issue with Battle of the Sexes may just be how much territory it cedes to Riggs, or rather, Carell-as-Riggs, who frankly kinda steals the movie. Some of that is the nature of Riggs’ personality: He’s a clown with a gambling problem who, instead of fixing himself, charms everyone into abetting him.

He’s a troll, yes. But he’s a charismatic troll.

The other factor that doesn’t necessarily serve Stone, or King’s story for that matter, is that Battle of the Sexes offers little in the way of revelations about King. That’s certainly a challenge, considering that she’s been a public figure for 45 years, but it’s not impossible. One exception: When King finally beats Riggs, we see her alone in the locker room after the match, crying in relief. Pressure is a privilege, as King likes to say, but one way or another, it will extract its pound of flesh.

The Shape of Water

Courtesy of TIFF

What a great time to be anybody associated with The Shape of Water, the delightful, fantastical film from director Guillermo del Toro, which just recently won the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

The Shape of Water is, on its face, about a mute maid for the fictional Occom Aerospace Research Center named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who, in 1962, falls in love with a sea creature that has the ability to heal people. The U.S. is in the midst of the space race and is searching for something, anything, to give it a leg up on the Russians. And in del Toro’s movie, the leg just happens to be attached to a sorta-human-sorta-reptilian-sorta-amphibian sea creature who’s worshipped as a god in the Amazon. An American Occom operative named Strickland (Shannon) has captured the creature and brought it to America, where he’s now holding it captive and torturing it with a cattle prod. Eliza works with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and eventually brings her and her best friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Spencer), into a plan to save the creature, known simply as The Asset (Doug Jones).

But of course, The Shape of Water is about so much more than rescuing a sea creature. It’s about highlighting the cruelty that results from a need to conquer, and the damage that can be done when good men do nothing. And it’s about the dangers of being so consumed with the past that the present passes you by. Still, The Shape of Water offers hope that hearts and minds can truly be changed for the better, even in the most stubborn of individuals.

As Strickland, Shannon basically embodies the worst qualities of a certain kind of man writ large: a priggish, entitled, mansplaining alpha male who seems to have swept in straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel.

Giles, on the other hand, is a committed advertising artist who refuses to acknowledge that modern times — and, in his case, photography — are passing him by. He’s consumed with watching Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Shirley Temple and Mr. Ed, and he insists on turning a blind eye to the violence being inflicted on civil rights activists in Alabama and Mississippi.

It’s easy to make much of the fact that Spencer is revisiting the role of maid in this film, and what’s more, playing one in an aeronautics facility, especially so soon after playing the enterprising Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures. But to reduce Spencer’s role in The Shape of Water simply to “the help” does a disservice both to Spencer’s artistry and the film’s message.

Eliza is literally voiceless, and at work, Zelda is often the one translating for her. In a touching moment after the film’s premiere Monday night, Spencer revealed that she has a brother who is deaf and mute. When they were growing up, he insisted that Spencer and the rest of their family speak rather than learn sign language, a decision Spencer says she regrets to this day.

Set off by an uplifting score by Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water will be one of fall’s most anticipated and highly treasured treats.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is a senior writer covering arts, entertainment and culture for The Undefeated. Christopher Eccleston is her favorite Doctor Who.