Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

When Billie Beat Bobby


What a delightful little movie this is! I’d never have run across it except after we saw, and loved, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom I looked up the director, Jane Anderson, and saw she had teamed with Holly Hunter once again on this movie. She also did The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, which we loved. This lady has a pretty small output as a director and writer, but she’s damn good when she makes a picture.

This is the story of the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, which took place 33 years ago now, so some of you may not have heard of it. These were the early days of feminism. Prize money was extremely lopsided in pro sports, even in tennis, where it was becoming clear that as many, if not more, people were coming to see the “ladies” play, because they were getting as aggressive as the men, and they were easy on the eyes, to boot. Chrissy Evert was just getting started. Martina Navratilova was still on the horizon. The top-ranked player was Australian Margaret Court, but Billie Jean King was just as good, and some say better.

Bobby Riggs was once the best tennis player in the world, no one questions that. But he was 55 now, and best known as a hustler. He’d do anything on a bet, and usually won his bets. He’d do anything to promote himself, and when he became aware of feminism he stated that even an over-the-hill male like himself could beat all the top women players. This instantly made him a hero to insecure males world wide, and a thorn in the side of progressive women. What Riggs really was is open to question. In this movie, as masterfully played by Ron Silver, it is impossible to hate him, or even to dislike him, for me anyway. He was a hustler, plain and simple, and I have a soft spot in my heart for hustlers. I really don’t think he gave a damn one way or the other about women’s rights, and I don’t think he believed even half the nonsense he was spouting. He was out to make a buck. The movie claims to be based on interviews with Billie Jean, and even she liked him, almost in spite of herself.

But after he totally bamboozled Margaret Court, just out and out slaughtered her by destroying her confidence, rattling her (she had had no idea of the kinds of pressure that would be brought to bear, she was used to the polite, staid atmosphere of Wimbledon), and forcing her to play his game of backcourt lobs, Billie Jean saw that someone had to stand up and beat this guy, and she was the one to do it. And she did. She ran him ragged in the Houston Astrodome, before a full house and a TV audience of millions.

This is an exciting movie, even though you know the outcome. For Bobby Riggs it was a win/win situation, exactly the kind he liked. For Billie Jean, it was must win. If she had lost, it would have set back women’s sports by years. Holly Hunter brings her usual hot focus of intensity to this role, and man, the lady is pumped! Not quite to the level of Linda Hamilton in Terminator II, but she looks good!

There has been endless debate on whether or not Riggs threw the game, and it makes no sense to me. Sure, losing wasn’t a big deal, his ego really wasn’t wrapped up in it, and I would have had no trouble believing he might even have bet against himself. No one knows for sure. But think about it. If he’d beat her, he could have kept this scam going forever, challenging every seeded woman in tennis. He’d have made millions. Losing, he was reduced to challenging them and being ignored. The point had been made. And when you think about it, it was a pretty silly point … but no one really noticed that in the hysteria of the moment. I mean, if Billie Jean had played Rod Laver he would have killed her in straight sets, and even she would admit that. It’s no reflection on women; 99% of sports were designed by men, to play up to men’s superior size and strength, especially upper-body strength. We’re never going to see women playing against men in most high-level professional sports, though the occasional prodigy like Michelle Wie can compete.

Back to Jane Anderson for a moment. It is her style that makes her movies work. First the writing, of course, but then the choice of music, and very much the editing. She makes it move without making it breakneck, and—miracle of miracles!—she knows when to use slow motion for good effect, not just to drag out the action. There is a zip, a snap to her movies, a sense of style that most directors can only envy. Please, please, Jane, make me some more movies, and soon!