I actually wasn’t too jazzed about watching this movie. Looking at the DVD cover, and the goofy artwork and look of Holly Hunter and Ron Silver in their 70s looks was really silly. But the film actually turned out to be quite interesting, even though the ending is pretty well known — and heck, its in the darn title.
When Billie Beat Bobby isn’t about the suspense of who wins, even though I think it may have benefited had they tried a little, it’s about how this simple tennis match affects women all over the country. Sure, the match was laughed off by many as nothing more than a gimmick. A mere publicity stunt, perhaps, but at the time the idea of a woman athlete beating a male athlete really meant something. Women’s liberation was at its apex, and the aroma of “revolution” was still sweet in the air.
As the title suggests, this film is based on the highly publicized tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. King was a female champion, having just won Wimbledon. Riggs was an aging tennis star who decided to challenge the top female players to tennis matches, proclaiming that a woman couldn’t possibly beat him.
King reluctantly agrees to play Riggs after watching him beat his first female, and the high-profile “battle of the sexes” began. But the mounting pressure almost proved too much for King, who feared that if she lost it would humiliate women everywhere. But, as the title suggests, she did beat Bobby — and sports have never been the same.
Well, not really. Nothing like this really happened afterwards, and the sexes have been kept separate (just look at how teen golf star Michelle Wie has been touted and jeered for her efforts to get onto the men’s PGA tour). But the King/Riggs match wasn’t about showing that women can beat men at sports, so much as it was about showing that women had the same value as men.
And, if you believe the movie’s ending, this match helped inspire women of all ages.
When Billie Beat Bobby is a well produced, true life story with strong performances, which does a good job of establishing the world of the early 1970s. The atmosphere for women at that time, and what this match meant to them. But what it does best is show you how the two players approached the match, for better or for worse.
Holly Hunter does a good job as King, but its Ron Silver that really shines here. He does a great job of portraying the larger-than-life personality that was Bobby Riggs. Over the top one minute, but in the smaller moments, Silver gives it just as much emotion.
What When Billie Beat Bobby does successfully is show the people involved as real human beings, with real issues, wiping away the hype that surrounded the match — and perhaps marginalized its importance.