A new swat at the 'Battle of the Sexes'

When tennis champion Billie Jean King accepted the half-humorous challenge Bobby Riggs threw down in 1973, most women (and a lot of men) watched the televised "Battle of the Sexes" with rapt attention.

For Bobby, it was just another self-promotion.

For Billie Jean, the event at the Houston Astrodome was far more significant - it helped bring greater respect for women in professional sports.

When Billie Beat Bobbie (Monday, ABC, 9-11 p.m.) celebrates a turning point in women's sports - an event that helped change women's views of themselves. The delightful film doesn't take itself too seriously, making its point with wit and grace. It stars Holly Hunter as Billie Jean and Ron Silver as Bobby, and the pair have wonderful comic chemistry between them. Their on-screen sparring also suggests the warm friendship that blossomed later between Riggs and King.

"I spent a lot of time with Holly, and Jane Anderson [the writer] and I are good friends," said Ms. King in a recent interview. She says the film is fairly accurate in its representation of the events. "Holly had never hit a tennis ball. She's an unbelievable quick study - but she had 16 years of ballet, which has something to do with [learning tennis so fast]."

She points out that the story has to unfold in 90 minutes, so it's hard to get everything in. "But it's accurate enough," she says. "Holly certainly got my mannerisms, and the internal truth, the essence is there."

"This story belongs on TV," said Ms. Hunter in a recent phone interview. "I didn't know Billie personally, but I did know her accomplishments as a world-class athlete.... I've always been athletic, but never in competitive sports. I was a little afraid of Billie - I didn't want her to see me play tennis. But she was great, she worked with me."

Hunter's admiration for King is profound. But playing her on screen offered some challenges. "I know a few things about playing real people," she says. "And if you don't do movies yourself, you don't realize that an actress has to take license - because you have to make that character you."

The screenplay was at first too didactic. When Hunter met the real King, she realized that "Billie is a light-spirited woman. She is really playful. I had to capture her playfulness. I had to capture her love of tennis.... She is an eagle, royalty. She is majestic on the tennis court. Rather than preach, I wanted [her character] to be driven by her love of the game - which is a whole other impetus. If I was funny, it's because I was going for her essence."

Writer Anderson adds that when she was given the project, she knew very little about tennis, either. "As soon as I got the assignment, I took up tennis," she says. "Now I'm hooked on it. The pleasure of being a writer is getting to explore worlds you've never known before."

'Jesus: The Complete Story' aims to counter scholarly

A new documentary produced by the BBC takes on 150 years of scholarly skepticism about the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life. Jesus: The Complete Story (Discovery Channel, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.) reflects the new scholarship that seeks to prove, first of all, the historical existence of the man Jesus, and then debunk many of the presumptions associated with the "Jesus Seminar" theologians, who have rejected much of the historical record of Jesus.

Some of the assertions will strike Christians as presumptuous, since the film offers alternative explanations for some of the most important events in Jesus' life rather than those found in the Gospels. Emphasizing cultural and political history, it assumes Jesus would have behaved in a certain way because he was a man of his time, rather than seeing him as utterly singular. The approach of the scholars quoted and the filmmakers themselves is scientific, archaeological, and sociological, not theological.

Still, you have to hand it to series producer Jean-Claude Bragard and his production team. They shed light on a number of aspects of Jesus' lifetime.

"We share the same journalistic intentions of most documentary filmmakers," Mr. Bragard says. "You come to a subject because you have something new to say. We are trying to reflect the latest thinking and scholarship on the subject."

The new trend, he says, is to open the floodgates so that much more of the Gospel story can be accepted as reliable.

For example, where skeptical scholars have asserted that the virgin birth, the Resurrection, and even the Crucifixion were greatly exaggerated, even invented to validate the position of Jesus as the Messiah, the filmmakers demonstrate that no one at the time would have made up a virgin birth - an unmarried woman could be stoned and certainly disgraced. It would have cast doubt on Jesus' ministry. The Crucifixion and the Resurrection are also given alternative explanations.

Another important clue to the authenticity of Jesus' teachings, according to the film - and one of the reasons Jesus would have upset both the priestly class of his own people and the Romans - is that he preached to women and healed lepers, the blind, and other disabled people. The sick were thought to have deserved their troubles, and women were of such low status that accepting them as followers would have been self-defeating.

The film does not tackle much of Jesus' actual teachings or the Ascension. That will be the subject of another film, Bragard says. "We have to learn to walk with Jesus first. There is 150 years of skepticism within academic circles.... We have a large section of the film just devoted to establishing that Jesus did exist."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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