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Ultimately a Love Match

The battle-turned-friendship between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King is re-created on ABC, starring Ron Silver and Holly Hunter.

April 16, 2001|WILLIAM KECK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A tennis court has been erected on the floor of the Forum, and VIPs are sipping champagne from plastic flutes. Others high in the stands hold signs proclaiming "I'm for Billie" and "Pigs for Riggs."

ABC Sports logos suggest a special match is about to go down, but the logos are circumscribed with bright pink and teal swirls, the colors ABC employed during its "Happy Days"/"Battle of the Network Stars" heyday.

Goldie Hawn is there but, despite the 1970s trappings, this is not the giggly, jiggly blond of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." It is December 2000, and Hawn, head of her Cherry Alley production company, is on hand to oversee the climactic scene of the $10.5-million ABC movie, "When Billie Beat Bobby," chronicling the 1973 defeat of huggable hustler Bobby Riggs by tennis champ Billie Jean King.

The original "Battle of the Sexes," as it was known, took place in the Houston Astrodome, but the Forum serves as a substitute for restaging this "Gladiator"-like spectacle. Wielding her racket, then 29-year-old King slew her 55-year-old sexist pig, securing herself a place in history as a 5-foot, 4-inch, 135-pound gladiator for human rights. King also won an unprecedented 20 Wimbledon titles, six of them singles. She turned professional in 1968, one of the first female players to do so, and in 1971 became the first woman athlete to win $100,000 in a single year.

More than a sporting match, even more than an entertainment event witnessed by 50 million viewers, King's clobbering of Riggs was the catalyst for a sexual revolution, demonstrating to American males that women are a power to be reckoned with, worthy of equal rights and opportunities. Many American women who had previously turned their backs on feminism opened their eyes to opportunities they hadn't before realized were available to them.

As the film points out, feminism in 1973 was still considered a dirty word by many, with anti-feminist Hawn serving as a more palatable example of what women were supposed to be. Having just graduated from "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" to feature films, where she again played giggly, jiggly dumb blonds, Hawn was the ultimate good-time gal: fun, free and nonthreatening to men.

"I remember the press saying to me, 'Don't you feel irresponsible that you're this dumb blond while women are burning their bras?' " Hawn recalled. "I didn't understand that because I was already liberated. I could be and do whatever I wanted because I was proud of myself and just having fun."

Hawn never intended her TV movie to be an advertisement for women's lib. She recruited writer-director Jane Anderson ("The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom," "If These Walls Could Talk 2") to infuse a wacky twist to what could otherwise have been a boring political movie of the week.

"Jane takes a kind of 'cheeky' approach," Hawn said, "allowing you to look back at that time period and say, 'Can you believe that it really used to be like that?' "

Executive producer Peter Sussman (whose company, Alliance Atlantis, produced recent Judy Garland, Jacqueline Susann and Joan of Arc biopics) says "When Billie Beat Bobby" is more than a film about tennis--it's a social satire allowing for a ruthless mocking of the '70s. Partner Ed Gernon considers the project to be "vintage Jane Anderson, where you take a slice of history and look at it from a completely skewed angle."

"It's a funny movie," agreed Anderson, whose take on the story is so non-lib that there is even a suggestion that Riggs might actually have had a shot at winning the competition had he not so overexerted himself promoting his sponsor: Sugar Daddy lollipops. "It would have been a closer game, definitely much more dynamic," she said. "But Billie truly was his match, not just physically but mentally."

'I Really Wanted Her to Win,' Hunter Recalls

During her research, Anderson obtained footage from the match that contained extensive crowd shots, enabling her and production designer Nina Ruscio to re-create the most minute details. "I made lists of what I wanted," said Anderson. "For instance, champagne being served in plastic goblets, the T-shirts, the programs and also the variety of humanity."

She also began taking tennis lessons to develop a clearer understanding of the game. Among her instructors: Martina Navratilova, who gave her eager pupil a lesson on a public court in Hollywood.

For the role of King, Anderson immediately thought of Holly Hunter, with whom she had worked on "Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom." More than that project, it was Hunter's high-energy, Oscar-nominated portrayal of a spunky network news producer in the 1987 feature "Broadcast News" that convinced Anderson that Hunter was the perfect choice to play King.

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