Net gain

Apr 18, 2001 at 12:00 am

In 1973, tennis-champ-turned-has-been hustler Bobby Riggs challenged star player Billie Jean King to a much-hyped intergender bout. One of the most eagerly anticipated sports events of its day, the grandly dubbed "Battle of the Sexes" set tennis records for attendance (30,472, at the Astrodome in Houston) and TV audience (an estimated 50 million). The title of the new ABC movie about the infamous match, "When Billie Beat Bobby", is a suspense-killer if you're too young or out of touch to know how this thing turned out, yet this story is full of surprises, the least of which is how good it is for a made-for-TV movie.

More importantly, it takes the formula of the traditional women-good/men-bad TV flick and turns it inside out. Women and men have a symbiotic relationship, the movie posits, even if their bond is antagonistic on the surface. The goings-on behind this public showdown are examined with great insight, mirth, and wit. The movie is based on King's recollections, woven together in a solid script by director Jane Anderson, who previously teamed with "When Billie" star Holly Hunter in the memorable 1993 HBO film "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom", which Anderson wrote.

Hunter tears it up as King, the sassy, heavy-hitting racquet champ with an activist's pioneering spirit. As the movie starts the 28-year-old is at Wimbledon in 1972, hoping to galvanize the support of her peers--including tough-talking pal Rosie Casals (Elizabeth Berridge), WASPy up-and-comer Chris Evert (Caitlin Martin), and soft-spoken world champ Margaret Court (Jacqueline McKenzie)--to get the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association to award them prize money comparable with what male players earn.

Meanwhile, 55-year-old hanger-on Bobby Riggs (a greasy Ron Silver, in mutton chops and Coke-bottle specs), one of the world's top players in the 1940s, has been reduced to agreeing to gimmicky handicaps (such as playing tennis while wearing a raincoat and holding an umbrella) in order to collect paychecks. Riggs notices that the new breed of female tennis players--aggressive, competitive, and, some say, just plain uppity--are starting to draw a crowd at Wimbledon. Publicity-hungry and tirelessly self-promoting, he and his manager, Lornie Kuhle (Vincent Van Patten), hatch a plan to coerce one of the women into a "Battle of the Sexes," challenging their athletic abilities and their stance on women's lib to stir up drama. ("Are you hustling my daughter?" Evert's father incredulously asks Riggs.) As the most vocal feminist in the bunch (and, by Riggs' calculation, the least likely to elicit public sympathy if defeated), King is naturally his first choice. However, the progressive, self-proclaimed "forward mama" declines at first, having no interest in swatting balls at some over-the-hill blowhard. She abruptly changes her mind after his Mother's Day match with Court in 1973, when Riggs trumpets himself as "the champion of women's tennis" after beating the socks off his timid Australian opponent.

While the competition itself was for real and taken seriously (by King, at least), the "Battle of the Sexes" was complete burlesque, a theatrical invention meant to strike a chord with a nation in turmoil over changing gender roles. Knowing this, and aware that a victory could aid in the progress toward equitable pay for female athletes, King negotiates with events promoter and Ali/Frazier-fight mastermind Jerry Perenchino (Bob Gunton) for a level playing field financially and otherwise. Of course, the pressure's on--there's no way she can lose to Riggs and save face.

But while the line is drawn deep in the sand, the film's sweetest touch is that it shows King and the ultimately benign Riggs as unlikely allies. She gets a kick out of him and his over-the-top stunts and ravings; he respects her pluck as an athlete and regards her as a good sport.

The film's finest moment--a scene of the two conversing before an interview with ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell (Fred Willard, whose Cosell impersonation is mercifully restrained)--captures this rapport perfectly. She's broadcasting from a remote location, so Riggs can see her on a monitor, but she can't see him. He crouches next to the screen and softly tells her a story about how he once played someone under the condition that an elephant be tied to his leg ("How much hay did you feed that elephant, Bobby?" King teases). Riggs then explains how his gambling habit ruined his marriage--a revelation that undercuts their conversation's logistical awkwardness and bridges the gap between them. Quirky and subtly powerful, masterfully performed by Hunter and Silver, it's one of the best exchanges of dialogue I've seen on television all year.

The Riggs-King match helped usher in a new era for women's tennis, attracting attention to the accomplishments of female athletes and assuring them adequate compensation and professional status for the first time in the history of sports. But "When Billie Beat Bobby" isn't just a story of one individual's--or even one gender's--triumph over chauvinism and societal constraint. The film wisely acknowledges that its protagonists weren't just opponents, but opportunists who needed each other. Ultimately, the best thing to happen to Billie Jean King was Bobby Riggs, and this flick does a nice job of honoring them both.

Adele Marley writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]