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The Joy of Sets

When Billie Beat Bobby time-travels back to an era when feminists were heroines and male-chauvinist pigs were objects of derision (imagine that!).

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When Holly Hunter is done with us, she will have left behind a whole virtual reality of American heroines, from Broadcast News to Miss Firecracker to Roe vs. Wade to The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Jane Anderson, who wrote the screenplay for True Adventures, is likewise building a memory palace, from How to Make an American Quilt to The Baby Dance, in which these women are encouraged to show off, with a radical spin on back roads, class angles, feminist choice, and media hype. That Hunter should star as Billie Jean King in When Billie Beat Bobby, a film about the 1973 tennis "Battle of the Sexes" written and directed by Anderson, is such a terrific idea that I am amazed it occurred to network television instead of cable. And that Ron Silver agreed to sign on as Bobby Riggs, the motormouth hustler, the male-chauvinist Mouseketeer, is a crazy dividend.

I've been partial to Billie Jean for a very long time, and not just because she organized the Women's Tennis Association and almost single-handedly engineered equal prize money for equal athletic showmanship. She is also probably the best thing that ever happened to Long Beach, California, where, when I was growing up in the fifties, the churches looked like airports, the high schools looked like filling stations, and the old people gathered at sunset in their electric go-carts to recall the snows of Iowa. By the time Billie Jean got to Wimbledon in 1972 -- "When Feminism Was Still a Dirty Word," the movie tells us in a wicked title shot -- she was prodding the rest of the woman players to sign a petition to withhold their labor. And there, on television and in the tabs, was the egregious Riggs, a 55-year-old buckgrubber, sound-biter, headline-grabber, and all-around media brat, trying to bait the women into a challenge match. It worked with the ladylike Margaret Court, whose subsequent humiliation at the hands of Riggs entertained so many Barcaloungers that a producer at ABC correctly imagined a ratings bonanza if only . . .

Billie Jean had everything to lose -- even her locker-mates bet against her -- but she was also more than ABC had bargained for, insisting not only on equal prize money but on equal licensing fees. She could also bite some sound herself. (When he says, "I'm gonna serve left-handed, and I'm gonna wear high heels," she responds: "I don't care if you show up in a jock strap.") And unlike the Riggs who cavorted for the cameras, wearing a raincoat, holding an umbrella, hoisting a beer or balloons, she trained with steely purpose. It's steel as well as spunk that Hunter embodies and Anderson admires -- plus the investment so many of us had in her wiping the smirk from his face. ("Billie Jean, beat the crap out of him," says a stewardess when the plane touches down in Houston.)

When Billie Beat Bobby has a tricky wire to walk. It's obviously rooting for its heroine, but it also wants, it needs, to make fun of Howard Cosell, the Astrodome, and the television commercials, not to mention the silly idea that three sets of tennis could say anything profound about gender and justice. It achieves all this with sleight-of-hand and fancy footwork.

Hunter, as usual, steals our heart. When she allows herself to be borne by bare-chested myrmidons into the Astrodome on a royal litter, like a virgin sacrifice -- Nora Ephron is there, and so is Salvador Dalí! -- it is as if, through her wire-rims, we see both the horizon and a hoot. But Silver deserves a lot of credit, too. He must make himself ridiculous and squirrelly, puffed up with Marlon Brando pouches, a blowhard. Several years later, Billie Jean King would talk about bisexuality as if it were a fact of life instead of a war crime. And I was proud of Long Beach.

Never mind why public television in general and Great Performances in particular are as much in love with Andrew Lloyd Webber as I am with Billie Jean. The TV adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar, from the London and Broadway revival directed by Gale Edwards, is a wowser, with Glenn Carter as a Messiah who has his doubts, Jerome Pradon as a Judas who might just as well have been a character in a novel by Albert Camus, and Renee Castle as a Mary Magdalene who'd have vamped Augustine and Aquinas. Instead of the usual desert, we get an inner city and a police state, Darth Vader cops and leather-jacketed Teddy Boys, fascistic underwear and left-wing street gangs, Las Vegas glitz and French Revolutionary slogans. As in When Billie Beat Bobby, we also get the vampire media -- witches with X-Files flashlights. And when Jesus invades the temple, he seems to be chasing out the pro wrestlers rather than the money changers. Be warned that the flagellation scene is rough stuff, and that the agonies of the Cross are very real indeed, especially the nails in the palms.

TV Notes
Medicating Kids (april 10; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is a "Frontline" report on such stimulant drugs as Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, and Dexedrine, and such behavioral syndromes as "attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder," as they combine to confuse four families during one year in Denver. Scientologists who insist that everything from schizophrenia to autism is a psychiatric shuck are no help at all. And not even "Frontline" can make up its mind about ADHD.

Citizen Reno (Fridays through April 27; 10 to 10:30 p.m.; Bravo) this week does for the supposed recycling of garbage in NYC what the comedian did last week for the medical establishment in the age of HMOs, and what she will do before the month is out to the New York Stock Exchange. Think of this wonderful stuff as Investigative Stand-Up.

A Question of Miracles (April 15; 10 to 11:15 p.m.; HBO) sends "America Undercover" into the faith-healing tents of the evangelicals, where almost nothing turns out to be what it seemed during the noisy ceremonies, probably because of chemical reactions in the brain during crowded rituals with powerful music, leading to a temporary but euphoric "God experience" some scientists are trying to isolate in our limbic systems.

When Billie Beat Bobby
Monday, April 16; 8 to 10 p.m.; ABC
Jesus Christ Superstar
Wednesday, April 11; 8 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13


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