×

When Billie Beat Bobby

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was hardly a pivotal moment in sports history, matching as it did a female athlete in her prime and a 55-year-old, overweight hustler whose tennis heroics had come 30-something years earlier.

With:
Billie Jean King - Holly Hunter Bobby Riggs - Ron Silver Larry King - Matt Letscher Jerry Perenchio - Bob Gunton Margaret Court - Jacqueline McKenzie Lornie Kuhle - Vincent Van Patten Chris Evert - Caitlin Martin Rosie Casals - Elizabeth Berridge Howard Cosell - Fred Willard

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was hardly a pivotal moment in sports history, matching as it did a female athlete in her prime and a 55-year-old, overweight hustler whose tennis heroics had come 30-something years earlier. Nonetheless, it overflowed with sociological significance, providing a harmless but somehow meaningful manifestation of the cultural tensions, the Battle of the Sexes, pervading the times. As a subject for a TV movie, it provides another nice snapshot of the ever-entertaining ’70s. In the superb hands of writer-director Jane Anderson, and with unimprovable performances from Holly Hunter and Ron Silver, “When Billie Beat Bobby” becomes a funny and fulfilling television event.

With the Oprah Winfrey presentation “Amy and Isabelle,” and now “When Billie Beat Bobby,” ABC becomes the network to watch for surprisingly good movies. Both films represent unusual network telepic fare, with an individualized style far more likely to be seen on cable.

Anderson came to prominence as scribe of one of the first notable cable made-fors, the true-crime semisatire “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” which also starred Hunter. Since then, Anderson has written and directed the affecting Showtime pic “The Baby Dance” (based on her play) and the first and most outstanding contribution to the HBO anthology “If These Wall Could Talk 2.” Her latest play, “Looking for Normal,” preems at L.A.’s Geffen Theater this month.

As a writer, Anderson has a surprising range, able to deliver poignancy and humor with equal verve. “When Billie Beat Bobby” falls squarely in the comedy camp, much in the same vein as “Positively True Adventures.” But she’s always careful to make sure the comedy is character-based, and never goes so wildly over the top that it stops being true.

What we get, therefore, is a fair document of what happened, capturing the spirit of the times, both the silliness and the seriousness of the contrived event, and the meaning it had for the people involved.

Anderson begins with a short segment showing Billie Jean King as a competitive, sports-obsessed child who found that her parents didn’t like her playing sports with boys and that boys didn’t like being beaten by girls.

Director of photography Paul Elliott defines these scenes visually with the washed-out look of an old photograph, which gives the ’70s scenes that follow a zesty feeling. Subtitles inform the audience both of years and people, as well as making wry comments, referring to 1972, for example, as a time “when feminism was still considered a dirty word.”

At that time, King was at the top of her game, winning the oh-so-proper Wimbledon and also leading the charge for equal prize money for women players. Riggs was way past his prime, as a player at least. But as a loud-mouthed, obnoxious hanger-on who always wanted to bet on something, he was at the peak of his abilities. Silver manages to invest Riggs with such an unrelenting personality that it’s hard not to admire the guy, and even like him, although he’s incredibly annoying. It’s an impressive, memorable turn for the actor.

At first, King wants nothing to do with Riggs’ idea of a Battle of the Sexes match, but when Riggs manages to reel in and then defeat the No. 1 female player, Margaret Court (a fine performance by Jacqueline McKenzie), King feels she has no choice.

From the time she agrees, she knows this event has meaning to women way beyond the obvious. King has little to gain if she wins, but an awful lot to lose if she folds, and it’s easy to forget that the match’s result wasn’t as clear-cut as it looks in retrospect — many of her own tennis colleagues, including rival Chris Evert (Caitlin Martin), picked Riggs to win. Hunter provides a perfect intensity for the role and shows us how King took it all quite seriously.

While King trains, Riggs markets, and we also see the moments when the deal itself, put together by producer Jerry Perenchio (Bob Gunton), almost falls apart when Billie Jean thinks she’s not getting an equal share of the revenue. Anderson also takes us into a variety of homes to show us everyday folks viewing and responding to the media event.

Anderson has become a fine director, finding offbeat ways to communicate the emotions of a scene; in one tennis sequence, for example, she shows us Court’s shadow while she serves, and the image has potency. Design work is excellent, capturing the ’70s without allowing the funny fashions to overwhelm the storyline. It’s a well-executed telefilm all around, with a particularly fine ensemble that includes Fred Willard as Howard Cosell.

When Billie Beat Bobby

ABC; Mon. April 16, 9 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Alliance Atlantis in association with Cherry Alley Prods. Executive producers, Peter Sussman, Ed Gernon, Goldie Hawn, Teri Schwartz; co-executive producers, Holly Hunter, Diana Kerew; producer, Kerew; director, Jane Anderson; writer, Anderson.

Crew: Camera, Paul Elliott; production design, Nina Ruscio; editor, Nancy Richardson; costumes, Hope Hanafin; music, Brian Kirk; casting, Molly Lopata. 2 HOURS.

Cast: Billie Jean King - Holly Hunter Bobby Riggs - Ron Silver Larry King - Matt Letscher Jerry Perenchio - Bob Gunton Margaret Court - Jacqueline McKenzie Lornie Kuhle - Vincent Van Patten Chris Evert - Caitlin Martin Rosie Casals - Elizabeth Berridge Howard Cosell - Fred WillardWith: Caroline Aaron, Kali Rocha, Maureen Mueller, Patrick Kerr, Jill Brennan, Michael Cavanaugh, Trevor Goddard, Emma Cline, Gerry Becker, Michael Mantell, Jack Hallett.

More TV

  • T-Pain, Faheem Rashad Najm. T-Pain performs

    TV News Roundup: 'T-Pain's School of Business' Sets August Premiere

    In today’s roundup, “T-Pain’s School of Business” sets an August 6 premiere on Fuse, and OWN greenlights a new talks series. EXECUTIVE NEWS Matt Brodlie is leaving his role as director of original film at Netflix to join the Disney+ content marketing team as senior vice president of international content development. In his new role, [...]

  • Songs for Screens Powered by Mac

    Songs For Screens: Labrinth on Scoring HBO’s Drake-Produced Drama 'Euphoria'

    British singer-songwriter Labrinth (née Timothy Lee McKenzie) has been having one of the biggest years of his nearly decade-long career, from the April release of his collaborative album with L.S.D. (a.k.a. Labrinth Sia & Diplo) to his starring role in the latest campaign for MINI, where he reinterprets Cole Porter’s cowboy classic “Don’t Fence Me [...]

  • The Office

    'The Office' to Stream Exclusively on NBCUniversal Service Beginning in 2021

    NBCUniversal announced Tuesday that it will begin streaming “The Office” exclusively on its standalone streaming service beginning in 2021. The popular comedy series will leave Netflix once the current deal with NBCU expires at the end of 2020, the same year that NBCU plans to launch its ad-supported streaming service. All nine seasons of the [...]

  • 'Lincoln Lawyer' Series in Development at

    'Lincoln Lawyer' Series in Development at CBS from David E. Kelley

    David E. Kelley is returning once more to the court of legal dramas. CBS has issued a series production commitment for “The Lincoln Lawyer,” with Kelley in position to pen and executive produce. Based on the series of bestselling novels by Michael Connelly, the show hails from A+E Studios in association with CBS TV Studios. [...]

  • Patrick Somerville'Maniac' TV Show premiere, London,

    'Maniac' Creator to Helm 'Made for Love,' 'Station Eleven' for WarnerMedia

    “Maniac” creator Patrick Somerville has signed on to helm two new series, “Made for Love” and “Station Eleven,” for WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service. “Made for Love,” which will be executive produced and directed by S.J. Clarkson, is a 10-episode, straight-to-series adaptation based on the novel of the same name by Alissa Nutting. The half-hour comedy [...]

  • Naomi Watts and Gretchen Carlson'The Loudest

    ‘The Loudest Voice’ Stars Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe Talk Roger Ailes

    Roger Ailes may have been the force behind the creation of Fox News, but the late newsman’s legacy will forever be his atrocious sexual harassment of several of the network’s female anchors and producers. Showtime premiered its new limited series “The Loudest Voice,” which chronicles Ailes’ rise and fall, on Monday night at the Paris [...]

  • Steve McQueen VSS

    Amazon to Launch Steve McQueen's Anthology Series ‘Small Axe’ in the U.S.

    Amazon has boarded “Small Axe,” the upcoming anthology series from “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, and will launch the series in the U.S. It will bow on the BBC in the U.K. and BBC Studios is selling it internationally. Amazon’s European content chief Georgia Brown revealed its involvement in the series, Tuesday, at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content