Center Court Sideshow

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Ron Silver and Holly Hunter in ABC's "When Billie Beat Bobby"

It's unusual to talk about someone who makes TV movies as having themes, a voice, an oeuvre. Scratch that: It's unusual to talk about someone who makes TV movies, period. Yet within this undersung field, writer-director Jane Anderson has wrought a body of wry and poignant work about women and power. Her 1993 "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom" for HBO won her a writing Emmy and helped define a kind of off-kilter, fact-based drama that has become a pay-cable staple. Showtime's 1998 "The Baby Dance," about the class tension between a wealthy couple and the couple whose unborn baby they're going to adopt, and her segment of last year's HBO film "If These Walls Could Talk 2," with Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly lesbian legally dispossessed when her lover dies, were tough-minded triumphs.

So Anderson, 45, was a natural choice to tell the story of the 1973 battle-of-the-sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Except, she says, "I didn't know a thing about tennis." (She did, however, have access to King, whom she'd known through mutual friends for years. And for insurance, she took tennis lessons. "I consider myself a method writer-director," she jokes.) But "When Billie Beat Bobby" (ABC, Apr. 16, 9 p.m. ET) isn't really a tennis movie, just as the King-Riggs face-off wasn't memorable as tennis (she creamed him, in straight sets). When over 40 million watched the lobbin' libber play the fast-talking former pro turned hustler, the big-top spectacle brought feminism into the living room.

A typical TV movie might have shown the match reverently as an Important Social Moment. But Anderson — whose "Cheerleader" was a pitch-perfect rendering of a modern tabloid circus — also captures the made-for-TV ridiculousness of its buildup, from Riggs' shilling for Sugar Daddy caramel pops to the opponents' theatrical, Muhammad Ali–esque bouts of insult and braggadocio. For these outsized personalities, the sideshow was the show. "Billie has often spoken of tennis as entertainment as well as a sport," says Holly Hunter, who plays King and starred in "Cheerleader." "That aspect of the story was really well served by Jane's satirical style."

With its A-list star and semi-satirical tone, "Billie" feels more like a pay-cable project than a network movie-of-the-week. That is no accident. Cable networks have been stealing audience and awards from the networks through high-profile projects with big names and budgets, while the broadcast networks have turned to newsmagazine and reality shows, which deliver comparable audiences for less money than old-fashioned MOWs (while offering similar dramas-in-real-life and "life lessons"). But while ABC has cut back on movies, it has begun producing more high-profile "events," including its Wonderful World of Disney and Oprah Winfrey Presents franchises, which have been among the few new network movies to score big ratings. Anderson says she had free rein — within language and time limits — to create Billie in her own style. "The networks have cable envy," she says, "and it's healthy."

"Billie" doesn't quite match Anderson's best cable work, mostly because it's too often as subtle as an overhead smash. While in an airport, King decides to play Riggs after hearing that he's beaten Australian tennis ace Margaret Court — then to triple-underline the moment in red, she witnesses a male pilot feeling up a mortified, silent stewardess. What saves the film is its understanding of the odd symbiosis between the vain, garrulous Riggs — played by Ron Silver with an endearing desperation — and the equally media-savvy King, who needs his histrionic male chauvinism to advance her fight for equal pay for women athletes. It's half war, half platonic screwball romance; by the time the two play, they've achieved a surprisingly intimate connection. "[Riggs] was a scrappy individualist, just like Billie," says Anderson. "They were both working-class, both rebels, both big mouths. They needed each other." A less heavy hand might have made "Billie" world-class, but this is still a refreshing work that sends the conventions of the network flick to the showers.