The year was 1973, and the women's lib movement was just getting underway in full swing. It was at about this time that one formerly excellent (and generally obnoxious) aging tennis pro named Bobby Riggs decided, for no other reason than to gain some novelty fame and a pocket full of cash, to challenge some of the world's best female tennis players to a few matches. Initially met with casual dismissal (and even some pity), Riggs persisted in baiting and mocking the lady players until one Margaret Court (easily one of the world's best players at that point) finally agreed to a match.
And Riggs, sad to say, wiped the court with Ms. Court, thrashing her soundly on the score card and then boasting to the media like the world's tallest six-year-old. But then he set his sights on Mrs. Billie Jean King -- and the stage was soon set for one of the most enjoyable media circuses of all time: The Battle of the Sexes, man vs. woman, Riggs, vs. King. And because this crazy situation went down in a time when female tennis players were fighting for their equal share of A-level compensation, this "Beauty and the Beast" match proved to be worth a whole lot more than just bragging rights.
As you can plainly see from the title of this colorful and generally entertaining made-for-TV biopic, Billie did indeed beat Bobby. And she beat him pretty damn bad.
So clearly you're not renting / purchasing When Billie Beat Bobby for a big surprise ending -- but you'll be treated to a light-hearted and upbeat little sports history lesson, and you'll be treated to a pair of effortlessly excellent lead performances.
First off, Holly Hunter is about a thousand times prettier than Billie Jean King ever was (sorry, Ms. King!) -- but Holly's clearly having a whole lot of fun with this role. The actress makes you care about her plight (and indeed the plight of the early-70s American woman in general) through sheer force of charm and good humor. When Billie Beat Bobby avoids becoming a preachy or overwrought "pro-female" diatribe mainly because the lead actress is so damn likable. Gender aside, it's tough not to root for this person.
As Bobby Riggs, veteran character actor Ron Silver gets to play a blustering blowhard weenie -- and the guy does a superlative job of it. Riggs is a shameless and shallow opportunist of the highest order, but Silver keeps the guy from becoming an outright bastard. Despite his non-stop gender-baiting and casual insults towards the lady tennis players, you get the impression that Riggs is kind of a sad character; that this last grab at fame is, really, all he has left.
Written and directed by Jane Anderson (screenwriter of How to Make an American Quilt), When Billie Beat Bobby offers a slight and colorful take on this rather silly old story -- as if the filmmaker realizes how ridiculous the "battle of the sexes" really was, but also that it still makes for a pretty good story. Plus, heck, it's a made-for-TV movie that debuted on the ABC Movie of the Week -- and most of those flicks are certified cheese. When Billie Beat Bobby is a whole lot better than most of what passes for "network movies" -- thanks mainly to a simple story (re-)told in a sunny-slick fashion, but mainly because of Hunter and Silver. Fans of these actors will enjoy the flick for their performances alone.
Video: The movie is presented in a Widescreen (1.78:1) Anamorphic aspect ratio, which is kind of a (pleasant) surprise, considering WBBB was originally produced for network television. The picture quality is actually quite good, all things considered.
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0, in your choice of English or French. Nothing too stunning, but the volume levels are where they should be, which means you won't be scrambling for your remote when something "louder" happens.
Extras: Nada. Not even a Dracula 3: Legacy trailer, which seems to be on every single Miramax DVD of the last three years.
Call it a mild surprise, because I expected When Billie Beat Bobby to be on par with those "Behind the Cameras of Gilligan's Island" network biopics. And it's a whole lot better than that stuff. With two less lovable actors in the titular roles, I suspect that WBBB could have evolved into a massive chore, but Hunter and Silver elevate this game into something quite pleasantly surprising.