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.

Ron Silver, Holly Hunter

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 Willard With: Caroline Aaron, Kali Rocha, Maureen Mueller, Patrick Kerr, Jill Brennan, Michael Cavanaugh, Trevor Goddard, Emma Cline, Gerry Becker, Michael Mantell, Jack Hallett.