|When Billie Beat Bobby|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Monday, 01 August 2005|
Women's liberation was a huge issue in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1919, women had been granted the right to vote, and for the first time their voices were heard in presidential elections and senatorial and representative races. Still, things did not drastically change for women on the national front.
World War II brought new changes for the American people when women were needed to staff factories that produced vehicles and ammunition and supplies for soldiers fighting in the war on and across the seas. Images of Rosie the Riveter remain in the minds of most people, as well as history books. However, once the war was over, women returned to the households all across the United States. Nothing really changed.
Then came the tumultuous 1960s when women protested in the house, carried those protests to work, and finally spilled them into the streets. Dinners were thrown in the trashcan and bras were burned. Spokeswomen for women's lives came and went, but one of the most effective was a tennis star named Billie Jean King. However, Billie Jean King's voice might never have been heard had it not been for Bobby Riggs, who was arguably the biggest male chauvinist working in the public eye.
The DVD "When Billie Beat Bobby" lays out the monumental struggle between titans at the Astrodome in 1973. Part docudrama and part humorous piece, the movie showcases these two personalities in ways that are generous to both. Holly Hunter plays an absolutely fabulous Billie Jean King, coming across in what is nearly a dead solid delivery of character and story. Ron Silver plays Bobby Riggs to the hilt, bringing his over-the-top personality and showmanship to the forefront.
In 1972, Bobby Riggs was at 55-year-old washed-up tennis player who had once been a champion at the game. Billie Jean King was 30 years old, at the top of her game, and pushing for equal pay for equal play for women in the game of tennis. In fact, the discrepancy is highlighted in one of the scenes when Billie Jean talks to the U.S. Open Board of Directors and mentions the fact that men when prize money worth $25,000 compared to a woman's prize money at $10,000.
From the very beginning of the movie in Chapter 1, the music flows beautifully through the surround sound system. The tinkling keys of the piano piece come through pristine and clear, broadcasting the fun and lively viewing ahead. In Chapter 1, the viewer is treated to a childhood view of Billie Jean King playing sandlot football -- and winning! -- in her front yard. That lasts only until her embarrassed mother calls her into dinner. Until that point, Billie Jean is very much in the middle of play. Later in the same chapter, Billie Jean's mother and father struggle to find a sport they will allow her to play. They suggest golf, the Billie Jean doesn't want to play that sport because it's not a team effort. Bobby Riggs gets introduced near the end of the first chapter, hustling tennis matches for cash. The music that underscores Bobby's presence sounds very much like a lounge lizard's repertoire, jazzy and light, which perfectly sets the mood for this man.
Chapter 2 moves directly into 1972 at Wimbledon, depicting the tennis scene as an ornate and elegant affair. Female tennis players even wore ruffled underpants beneath their short skirts to be more ladylike. The introduction of the various female tennis players at the time is handled really well through an older couple giving commentary on the arrival of each player. Of course, Billie Jean King is given short shrift by the commentator, who makes the statement that Billie Jean King simply does not know her place. Billie
Jean adroitly avoids the label of the women's libber while pursued by reporters. The story shifts to Bobby Riggs as he's recounting his past glories to young man who doesn't have a clue about him. Furthermore, Bobby has to deal with getting snubbed by London security at Wimbledon. Bobby watches Billie Jean play and is impressed by her anger and the way she challenges authority.
Billie Jean's efforts to upgrade the women's tennis representation open up Chapter 3. Bobby meets her in the bar while she's trying to convince the other female tennis players to go along with a petition she needs signed. He immediately tries hustling her, proposing she play him. The band music underscores the quietly supportive relationship Billie Jean shares with her husband Larry King, the argument another player is having with her husband over the way he let their child chew on her tennis racket before the match, and Bobby Riggs' efforts to drum up a match for itself with one of the women.
Chapter 4 spins out the progression of the challenge between Bobby Riggs and the women's tennis circuit. After finding out that Billie Jean is the major proponent for a change in the pay scales for women in tennis, Bobby Riggs issues a challenge to her, saying that if she really thinks women should be paid as much as men, then she should play him. He offers $5,000 to her if she wins. If she beats him, then she is as good as she says she is and women should get more money. At first, Billie Jean ignores the challenge, but the press picks up on it and turned it into a major piece. The Swiss intercutting of the scenes moves the story along at a dramatic pace, and the bouncy music keeps it fun. When Margaret Court agrees to play Bobby, Billie Jean knows that the match is going to be bigger than a simple challenge between two professionals in the world of tennis. Billie Jean believes that Margaret Court hasn't got a clue about how big things are going to be.
Music bombards the viewer in Chapter 5, adding to the sense of the fantastic. Bobby actually gets presented as sympathetic to Margaret, telling her she needs a different ball for the Condor game she plays. At the same time, Billie Jean is on her way back from Tokyo and wants to view the game. The movie quickly cuts back and forth between the different elements watching the game, presenting husbands arguing with wives, women making bets with men, and Jerry Perenchio, the man who booked some of Muhammad Ali's boxing matches.
Chapter 6 shows Margaret's defeat against Bobby Riggs, intercutting deftly between the game and Billie Jean's impatience to arrive at the Honolulu Airport where she can watch the game on television. The jazzy, quick tempo draws the viewer into the match as well as Billie Jean's pursuit of video gratification. Bobby has a quick aside to bury, Margaret's husband, apologizing for winning and the fact that he really wants the attention and hasn't had it for over 20 years. Billie Jean feels certain she is going to have to play him now. Watching the flight attendant pay off on the bet she made the male pilots and how they laugh in the woman's face and stroke her hip as she walks off consolidates Billie Jean's decision.
Bobby Riggs is suddenly in the public eye in Chapter 7 and getting off first from women all over the world to match them in whatever sport that they play. By this time, Jerry Perenchio has become involved with Bobby and is helping to promote the match with Billie Jean. Bobby has an offer to play Chris Evert but doesn't want to play her because she is so young that he will come across as a bad guy. He wants to play Billie Jean. Jerry says he can help make that happen.
The rivalry between Bobby and Billie Jean really heats up in Chapter 9. One of the nice touches in the relationship between these two professionals was the way the Billie Jean pushed the net down for Bobby to step over. He protests, saying he could've made the jump easily, but she tells him she knows he could've made it. During a press interview, they get into a lively back-and-forth banter that the reporters eat up and pass on to the viewing public. Again, the music underscoring all the action and drama really picks up the pace on the storytelling and makes the movie a true delight.
Chapter 11 delineates the difference in the approaches Billie Jean and Bobby had to the upcoming game. Bobby devoted his time to promoting the match in making money hand over fist. Billie Jean practiced and got herself into the best condition of her career. The hallucinations Billie Jean has playing Bobby are an absolute delight, again backed by drum rolling music that adds zest to the whole viewing experience.
The package is decidedly slim for the DVD purchaser. There are no pictures featured on the disc, and there should be. Documentaries and news pieces from 1973, including interviews with Billie Jean and Bobby and advertisements and commercials, would have been welcome.
Amazingly, "When Billie Beat Bobby" comes across as a great movie for the whole family. Viewers old enough to remember the actual tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs will be intrigued to see it played out between the two performers. Overall, it's still a movie they can be enjoyed by the whole family, whether they have any sense of the history behind the match or not. "When Billie Beat Bobby" is a marvelous dramatization that should have received more attention that obviously did.