Sportsflicks: When Billie Beat Bobby (And Men's Rights)

The era of the broadcast made-for-TV movie event is probably over. But if it ended with Holly Hunter beating Ron Silver in straight sets, it at least went out in style.
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Ron Silver's on the left. Your left. Yeah, the one that looks like a melting Ron Silver.

Image via IMDB.

It has been forty years since tennis’ Battle of the Sexes, which is the name given to a made-for-TV event in which women’s champion Billie Jean King defeated unctuous tennis hustler Bobby Riggs in straight sets, and single-handedly set the men’s rights movement back 37-and-a-half years. There has already been some commemoration in the media, both in an upcoming PBS American Masters special on Billie Jean and a recent story on ESPN which used the journalistic tool known as hearsay to posit that the game was fixed due to Riggs’ gambling debts.

By 2001, the broadcast TV movie era was coming to a close. Event films and miniseries had become the domain of basic and premium cable, and executives across the industry had realized that it was a lot cheaper to let Ric Flair spend the week with Roddy Piper’s wife than to cast Bruce Jenner as the first white quarterback in Grambling football history. How sad you can be about the end of this era is up to you, but When Billie Beat Bobby, a dramatized account of The Battle Of The Sexes, is a surprisingly good and decidedly watchable vestige of that now bygone time.

Academy Award winner Holly Hunter plays Billie Jean King, and while she is probably a decade too old to play King at her peak -- King was 29 when she played Riggs -- she is also Holly Hunter and so looks exactly as young and Holly Hunterish as Holly Hunter has looked since Raising Arizona or so. And, as she is Holly Hunter, she also does a good job of showing King’s will to win, and her struggles to literally get Bobby Riggs out of her mindset. Hunter was a co-executive producer on this film, and the fact that she was old enough to remember the events surrounding this event, and smart enough to know that it had meaning beyond its wild media hype, is clearly a plus. Hunter also wrings some pointed humor out of dealing with out-and-proud male chauvinist pigs, not to mention the exemplar of the species that was Bobby Riggs.

And Ron Silver is Bobby Riggs, and certainly seems to be enjoying every moment. More importantly, he’s easy to enjoy in the role, as he constantly gets himself into very obvious trouble, and then plays it off by being the bad wittle boy. Ron Silver always seemed to relish the role of a spoiler, be it as an evil senator who falls prey to the Blinovitch Limitation Effect in Timecop, or as a fictionalized version of himself, as in “Heat Vision And Jack”, or as a real-life neoconservative talking head/person-who-actually-went-on-a-date-with-Ann-Coulter in his weird, less-lovable final years.

But if Silver was a weird guy, he was also a talented and awfully committed actor, and upon watching archival footage of Riggs, it’s clear Ron-Ron has him down pat. In portraying a larger-than-life character like Bobby Riggs, an actor can either envelope and assume his subject's overstated essence or just thrashingly, hammily drown in it. Silver chooses the latter, with great results. This, too, is maybe true to life -- you want King to win the match, but it’s hard not to be amused by her opponent, pig though he is.

***

The first act, and please remember that I am writing this about a TV movie, is an over-the-top battering ram of awesome. Things slow down a bit immediately after former women’s champion Margaret Court loses to Riggs in a tune-up for the eventual match with King. The final act features a slew of people all over America watching the game (on a Thursday night!), and while the on-screen epilogues are a bit didactic, they do manage to signify the importance of the King/Riggs match. The mise-en-scene, of course, is slightly inaccurate but endearingly hard-working in the old TV movie fashion, even though it’s tough not to wish for more scenes in the actual Astrodome, or at least some stock footage of the giant snorting bull over the scoreboard.

The ending is anti-climactic to say the least; even if you have never heard of this story, the title When Billie Beat Bobby does give something away. But director/writer Jane Anderson manages to keep the proceedings light and consistently entertaining, weaving in interesting (if implausible) anecdotes surrounding the people watching the event as a means of providing context beyond Spunky If Somewhat Butched-Up Holly Hunter against Quippy Lumpy Fiftysomething Tennis Guy.

Anderson is best known for her screenwriting and TV direction. The only feature film she has directed to date, The Prize Winner of Defiance, OH, has most of the strengths and weaknesses of When Billie Beat Bobby, including a willingness to break the fourth wall and having another character narrate. That and pulling off the trick of having strong female protagonists leave a better future for womankind without making men hate hate hate the film and the circumstances that led them to watch it, as for instance Legally Blonde does. Anderson also knows how to create memorable male antagonists; Prize Winner includes a master class in overacting by Woody Harrelson which has to be seen in full to be fully appreciated.

While the TV movie version of the Battle of the Sexes is fun in its own way, it is also finally the TV movie version of the Battle of the Sexes. There’s a great deal left not just unexplained but unexamined about the fascinating lives of both Riggs and King. You want to know more about how Riggs -- who was one of the best tennis players in the world just before World War II, and won over $100,000 by betting on himself to win Wimbledon -- became a degenerate gambler and a major golf and tennis hustler, because who would not want to know that? (Although that first part probably answers itself.)

The supporting characters in this story are just as fascinating and strange -- enough so that maybe a miniseries might have worked better. Billionaire Jerry Perenchio, who promoted the event and is played by Shawshank Redemption villain Bob Gunton, once co-owned Univision, and lives in the fucking Beverly Hillbillies mansion. Fred Willard, of all people, delivers what is easily the third best Howard Cosell portrayal of the early 2000’s, after Jon Voight’s Oscar nominated performance in Ali and John Turturro’s turn as Cosell in the TNT movie Monday Night Mayhem. Serviceable Cher substitute Stockard Channing supplies the film’s narration. Elizabeth Berridge, who played Mozart’s wife in Amadeus, shows up as spunky tennis legend Rosie Casals, while Dennis Van De Meer, the legendary tennis coach who trained both King and Court in their matches against Bobby Riggs, is played by a schlubby character actor named Rainn Wilson.

Sadly, the film decides to cut Billie Jean King’s life in half. King was just about the greatest tennis player of her generation, and managed the awesome feat of getting equal winnings for men and women out of the U.S. Open, as the film shows. By the early 1970’s, however, Billie Jean had to deal with the realization that she was a lesbian, which she did not acknowledge for almost a decade and which the film -- or, again, TV movie -- doesn’t address at all. I doubt, however, we will ever get the definitive story of Billie Jean’s brother Randy Moffitt, who was a serviceable closer in the majors during the 1970’s and 80’s, and whose life and career were threatened by the rare barnyard parasite Cryptosporidia Enteritis. So maybe not a mini-series, even. Maybe just a TV show that never gets canceled and somehow reanimates Ron Silver.

The upcoming American Masters documentary on Billie Jean King should be a nice corrective to this Cliff’s Notes version of the story, although an HBO film of the Billie Jean King version could work, especially if Jane Anderson decided to tackle it again. Or there’s always the series route -- Fred Willard is probably available, and Rainn Wilson probably isn’t. That said: watch When Billie Beat Bobby, now! It’s on Netflix, so you have no excuse. Never were there 90 minutes of televised Women’s Liberation more watchable or entertaining, let alone 90 that seemed to beg for another 270 or so to tell the whole weird story.


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