Two of the most trailblazing movies this season are quietly revolutionary, not because of their potentially controversial content, but because of their utterly uncontroversial form.
The period films "Battle of the Sexes," set in the 1970s, and "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," which spans the 1920s and the 1940s, feature protagonists exploring sexual relationships that strayed from the heteronormative strictures of those eras. In "Battle," Emma Stone portrays tennis player Billie Jean King as she embarks on her first lesbian romance; in "Marston," Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth, create a domestic and physical ménage à trois with a younger woman.
What's quietly radical about both movies is that they use relatively conservative film vernaculars to depict stories in which sexuality isn't "other-ized," but a healthy part of the lives that include work, family, creativity and enterprise. "Battle of the Sexes" possesses the swiftly moving drama, sprightly humor and bright tone of a mainstream crowd-pleaser; "Professor Marston," for its part, has the period sheen and restraint of a classic art house awards contender.
At a time when representation has gained steady traction in Hollywood, it's often seen as a victory when a film features a leading character who isn't white, male or straight. But both "Battle" and "Marston" go beyond mere box-checking to explore how aspects of identity — in this case, sexual orientation — can be depicted, not as an issue, a problem or even the defining facet of a character's life, but an organic, un-neurotic piece of a larger whole.
In "Battle of the Sexes" King is busy preparing for a much-hyped exhibition match against Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). This happens during a period in her life when she was also founding the Women's Tennis Association, battling sexism within professional sports and, incidentally, falling in love with a woman. In the film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, King's attraction to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) certainly presents complications: After all, King is married, and homophobia within the tennis circuit and the world at large threatens not just King's career, but the fledgling WTA.
But in "Battle of the Sexes," it's the outside forces of sexism and prejudice that are the problem, not King's shifting sense of self. Her romance with Barnett is portrayed as part of the swirl of her life, which in 1973 made her arguably the most famous athlete in America. The film's sex scenes are mild enough to have earned the movie a family-friendly PG-13 rating.
"One of the things Billie Jean said to us early on was, in addition to the story of the Battle of the Sexes, she wanted this movie to be empowering to kids who are struggling with their sexuality," Faris said during a recent telephone interview, adding that it was King who wanted the film to be PG-13. "That was her interest and really it was all of our interest."
Similarly, in "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," which opens Oct. 13, writer-director Angela Robinson handles potentially lascivious or voyeuristic material with tact and taste. The film tells the true-life story of William Moulton Marston, who created the Wonder Woman character and was largely inspired by his wife, Elizabeth, and the couple's mutual lover, Olive Byrne. The politically progressive trio — who lived together and parented four children together in the 1930s and 1940s — eventually discovered sex play in the world of bondage, whose accoutrements of whips, cuffs and form-fitting corsets became Wonder Woman's chief signifiers.
It would have been easy for Robinson to play up the fetishistic kink of the Marstons' unusual relationship with Byrne (they're played by Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, respectively). But Robinson, who was an executive producer of the Showtime series "The L Word" and wrote and directed several episodes of the show, was determined to present her title characters not as figures of titillation or psychological obsession but intelligent and self-aware scholars who simply wanted to live honestly and in good faith with their hearts' desires. The result is a film that, despite its sometime outre subject matter, feels improbably old-fashioned, sincere and wholesome.
"It was very important to me that the exploration of sexuality in the film feel like a dialectic between fantasy and reality," Robinson said in a recent phone conversation. "So the quote-unquote sex scenes to me weren't about having sex. I wasn't interested in what they were doing with each other. It was about freedom and fantasy — that in this fantastical space with these costumes, they could be the truest versions of themselves. They could be in this liberated space and then they're thrust back into the real world. Anything 'kinky' is almost always depicted as bad or transgressive or dark. And I was like no, this was wonderful."
"Battle of the Sexes" and "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" are the most recent of a long line of breakthrough movies representing gay life, from such "problem pictures" as "The Boys in the Band" and "Brokeback Mountain" to such coming-out portraits as "Lianna," "Go Fish" and 2013's "Blue Is the Warmest Color," which earned both praise and prurient notoriety for its graphic sex scenes that were filmed in real time.
What sets "Battle" and "Marston" apart are narrative and aesthetic values that could easily be described as conventional — even conservative.
"I made a very specific directorial decision to not put quotes around anything," Robinson explained. "I [decided to] treat these characters the way your standard prestige biopic would. I very specifically chose to tell the story like you would tell 'The Imitation Game' or any other movies of this ilk. To me, that in and of itself was subversive."
Meanwhile, "Battle of the Sexes" opens wide this weekend, at which point Dayton and Faris will discover the extent — or limit — of their story's mass appeal. Already, the film is performing better in cities and among the women who are emerging as its core audience. And those who see it love it: It has an A CinemaScore, suggesting that audiences are responding to it not just as a sports movie or a nostalgia trip, but as romance, coming-of-age tale and resonant slice of American culture and human nature. "It's so much more than a tennis movie," Dayton said. "It's really about people's lives."