Tennis, Anyone?

billie jean king in 1973 during Battle of the Sexes match with Bobby Riggs
This week, CBS News Sunday Morning's John Leonard focuses on a couple of made-for-TV movies that have more to offer than the regular fare.
Even if, like me, you couldn’t care less who survives boot camp or Regis, there are other reasons to watch television this week. Return with us tomorrow night on ABC to those thrilling years of yesteryear, in 1973 in the Houston Astrodome, when a tennis match “Battle of the Sexes” upstaged Watergate; when money and hype met gender and justice; “When Billy Beat Bobby.”

Ron Silver plays Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old male chauvinist motormouth and media brat. Holly Hunter plays Billie Jean King, who is too busy organizing the Women’s Tennis Association. But Margaret Court accepts the challenges. After the ladylike Margaret is humiliated. Billie will not only play Bobby but also talk back to the bully – at a press conference. And on television, with Howard Cosell. And behind the scenes at the Astrodome. Not even a royal litter and male slaves faze Billie. And finally, on the court itself, steel and spunk beat bluster and smirk. After which, women’s liberation!

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
To the media circus in the Astrodome, writer-director Jane Anderson brings the same sly feminist wit she lavished on another Holly Hunter TV movie, “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.” But women weren’t the only rooters for Billie Jean. I grew up in the very same Long Beach, California, where her father was a fireman, her mother sold Tupperware, and Billie Jean learned to play on public courts instead of at a country club. She was my hero, too. Organized sports are as much a medium of upward mobility in this country as organized crime.

Which brings me to a surprisingly good remake, next Sunday night on CBS, of one of the best organized crimes in all of detective fiction – “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Albert Molina is a Hercule Poirot more melancholy and less fidgety than Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov. Peter Strauss is the obnoxious tycoon who fails to hire him, and doubtless deserves his multiple stab wounds. One suspect, Meredith Baxter as a sitcom actress and a temer tantrum, has come a long way since “Family Ties.” Another, Leslie Caron as the widow of a Latin American dictator, has come even further from “Gigi.” Everybody else has a gripe, too, as if the train were a kind of supermarket of ulterior motives and gaudy resentments.

Although Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of the Agatha Christie mystery had a star-studded cast, they either camped it up or mailed it in. The result was so sluggish, it was slower than sap. This TV remake has some zip, not to mention laptops, communication satellites, and jokes. If you don’t yet already know whodunit, where on earth have you been? I envy your innocence.

© MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved