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The return of the King.

Twenty-eight years ago, Billie Jean King stood up for all women by crushing woman-baiter Bobby Riggs on the tennis court, Now lesbian filmmaker Jane Anderson and icon Holly Hunter want to fire up a new generation with the ABC-TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby

Billie Jean King's place in tennis history has been assured by her multitude of titles (20 at Wimbledon alone) and her leadership in women athletes' struggle for equal pay and recognition. But her impact on cultural history outside of sports can be attributed to two provocative events: her unwanted 1981 outing as a lesbian and her 1973 made-for-TV "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match against aging male tennis hustler Bobby Riggs.

The Riggs match, which drew more than 30,000 spectators to the Astrodome in Houston and about 50 million home viewers, is now being replayed in the ABC made-for-TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby, airing April 16 and starring a surprisingly effective Holly Hunter as King [see sidebar]. Written and directed by celebrated lesbian dramatist Jane Anderson (responsible for Showtime's acclaimed The Baby Dance and for the poignant Vanessa Red-grave segment of HBO's If These Walls Could Talk 2), the film also stars a hilarious Ron Silver as Riggs. Hunter unmasks the softness of her real-life character, and Silver the sensitivity of his, in contrast to King's and Riggs's public personae of being tough and misogynistic, respectively.

Anderson, in the sly, antic style of her screenplay for the 1993 HBO docudramedy The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (with Hunter as the mom), walks a fine line between sarcasm and seriousness in her depiction of the "absurd" event that nonetheless inspired a sort of "I am woman, hear me roar" sense of female empowerment.

"It changed the social fabric of America," Anderson asserts. "I love that combination of absurdity and importance."

Anderson was approached for the project by Goldie Hawn's production company, Cherry Alley, which originally had planned a series of films about great moments in women's history. "Usually I shy away from doing movies for network television," says Anderson, "because you never know what you'll be able to get away with. But all the networks now want to be HBO, so in lieu of dirty words and being able to show breasts, I was given full creative freedom."

She also felt drawn to make the film because she and life partner Tess Ayers were already friends with King. "The irony was, I've never been particularly athletic, and I never played tennis, but I had this great tennis-playing friend," says Anderson, referring to King. "Once I was assigned the film I started taking lessons, because I knew there was no way I could write and, especially, direct it unless I really understood the game from the inside. I'm now a born-again jock. I adore this game."

Anderson's script reveals the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the match, but from a lesbian perspective it omits one significant bit of hidden, contemporaneous history: King's relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, who later sued for "galimony." "Billie said, `Can we please not go there?'" says Anderson, who agreed that the illicit romance (King was still married to husband Larry, a major character in the film because of his involvement in setting up the match) would be distracting.

"When you're dealing with a 93-minute film," she says, "every moment has to lead to that [main] event. Also, our society is still not evolved enough to accept a homosexual subplot as just another subplot, so it would have skewed the attention of the audience. It's a whole other story [her relationship with Barnett]. Billie's head at the time was political. Of course, she was dallying on the side, but that's not where her focus was."

Anderson expects that the film will draw older viewers who want to relive a fond memory, but she especially hopes that young women who don't know their history will tune in.

"Only a quarter of my young women extras knew who Billie is," she says. "I want young athletes to realize that if it weren't for Billie, there would be no WNBA. Without Billie, my 6-year-old son, Raphael, wouldn't be growing up in an era where women are just as viable sports figures as men. I want Billie to be canonized. I want every young person to know about her."

When Holly met Billie

Oscar champ Holly Hunter talkes about channeling tennis champ Billie Jean King

The Advocate: I don't know if Holly Hunter would have been the first actress one imagines playing Billie Jean King, yet your performance really worked, physically and emotionally. What drew you to the role?

Hunter: Billie Jean is such a life force of a character, and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to know more of who she was. I wanted to be an athlete. I wanted to go into this whole other arena.

Had you played tennis before you took on the role?

No. I've alwyas been athletic, but I've never considered myself an athlete. I was a dancer from the age of 3, and that was a definite entree into tennis [in preparing for this role]. I think dance and tennis are certainly related, and Billie would agree with me.

So you had to train for the part?

Oh, yes definitely; that was one of the things I insisted on. We pushed the start date back so I could have four months to train. I worked out a gym for two to three hours a day, I played tennis an hour to an hour and a half every day, and I did an hour sesion of Pilates [a system of body-contioning exercises] three times a week.

Your really look buff on-screen.

Well, I should!

At what point did you meet Billie?

Right away. It was fantastic. I flew to the U.S. Open and hung out with her for several days and went to several other tournaments with her. I also took several tennis lessons from her and one from Rossie Casals [King's tennis contemporary, played for clever laughs by Elisabeth Berridge in the film]. Billie was unbelievably accessible and very generous. The biggest bonus I got from making this movie was getting to know Billie. She's incredibly positive. I had no idea she would be so much fun.

Did she seem more serious to you in the 1970s?

Yeah, of course, because all we really knew of Billie in the '70s was her demeanor on the court. She was like an eagle, a force to be reckoned with. I think she used intimidation extremely efficiently on the court as well as her charisma. Everything about Billie was larger than life. She is larger than life, but she's also extremely human.

Did you watch the King-Riggs match in 19737

I did. I was not a tennis aficionado, so I didn't follow the match from a sports point of view, but I really remember the hoopla beforehand--the people in my high school talking about this guy and this woman. It was more an extravagant social phenomenon.

You're going through the pantheon of feminist and lesbian heroines, having also played Jane Roe [in the 1989 NBC film Roe vs. Wade].

Then I kind of busted that open playing Wanda Holloway in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom [the true-life antiheroine who hired a hit man to off the mother of her daughter's cheerleading rival].

Finally, since this is for The Advocate, I have to ask: What was up with that lesbian bar scene in Living Out Loud [in which Hunter's ostensibly straight character leads an erotically charged dance routine featuring, as USA Today put it, "a convention of lesbian supermodels"]? Was it reality or the character's fantasy?

It's reality-based--my character certainly did go to the bar--but some of the things that happened to her when she was in that room were in her mind. It was tremendous fun to do. --M.K.

Kort is writing a biography of Laura Nyro for St. Martin's Press.
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Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 24, 2001
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