Picks and Pans Review: When Billie Beat Bobby

ABC (Mon., April 16, 8 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

Once upon a time in the 1970s, when feminism was known as women’s lib, a paunchy, garrulous former tennis champion named Bobby Riggs ran around daring top female players to face him across the net. First the hustler dispatched Margaret Court, and he crowed. Next Riggs took on Billie Jean King, 26 years his junior, in a nationally televised event massively hyped as the Battle of the Sexes. The Houston Astrodome showdown had all the theatricality of pro wrestling, yet it tapped into some fundamental feelings on both sides of the gender divide.

In this entertaining TV movie, writer-director Jane Anderson (The Baby Dance) captures the absurdity of the King-Riggs match without minimizing the importance it took on in 1973. Holly Hunter’s King combines a keen sense of irony with a fierce will to win. Ron Silver goes full throttle as Riggs (who died in ’95), making his shameless self-promotion strangely endearing. As the chauvinist swine stands sweaty and bedraggled on the edge of defeat, you want to jeer and console him simultaneously.

But what’s a tennis film without a few faults? The on-court action is stretched out in an effort to boost the drama of a straight-set contest. Normally funny Fred Willard flops as Howard Cosell. And the ending waves the feminist banner too vigorously.

Bottom Line: Hits mostly winners

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