'American Masters Billie Jean King' review: Loose ends

Wimbledon Champ Billie Jean King holds down the

Wimbledon Champ Billie Jean King holds down the net as Bobby Riggs, the 55-year-old tennis player she played in the game that was billed as "the battle of the sexes," jumps over the net. King will be the subject of PBS' "American Masters" airing on Sept. 10. King later won the match against Riggs. (Credit: MCT)

DOCUMENTARY "American Masters: Billie Jean King"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 8 on WNET/13

WHY TO WATCH Three big stories in one. And tennis, too!


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WHAT IT'S ABOUT California '50s kid Billie Jean Moffitt grows up with a jock dad and major-league-pitcher-to-be brother, yearning for her own sports space. She finds it in tennis, hitting Wimbledon by the time she's 18 -- and hitting her first roadblock in public perception. Initially, the Brits adore this plucky American; then there's distaste for her ultracompetitive (read: unladylike) demeanor.

Soon King, taking the name of husband, Larry, is a hugely successful '60s tennis champ but a distant second to men in prize money. She argues for equality, just as "women's lib" hits critical mass in challenging other societal limitations. King leads women players to market their own tennis tour, named for sponsor Virginia Slims, then gets elbowed into the spectacle of 1973's celebrated "Battle of the Sexes" tennis showdown with older ex-champ hustler Bobby Riggs -- the way many recall King today.

By the '80s, there's that messy "palimony" suit after an affair with her female assistant. Unwillingly "outed," King becomes a focal point for gay liberation, too, while her post-playing life finds her promoting World Team Tennis and youth workshops, helping everyday kids find tennis fulfillment.

MY SAY There's inspiration here, and lots of it. What a life, what crazy times, what struggles, what accomplishments. Too bad there's also a nagging sense of distance. King, who turns 70 in November, doesn't quite warm up in her on-camera commentary (there's no narration), instead evoking the detachment of historical reflection. Is that a fault? Well, it's more prone to stir admiration than affection for this living legend.

The film's stories also feel really separate -- King's hard climb, the sexes Battle, her gay identity. The lengthy reconstruction of the Riggs imbroglio is practically its own subfilm (clearly edited before recent allegations of Riggs' match-throwing). After that, the gay question is rendered almost an afterthought. Her ballyhooed affair is never elucidated, and ex-husband Larry, a frequent film presence in both current-day reflections and vintage footage, shown standing by his wife in public, suddenly disappears without explanation. Supplanting him in comment land is King's current partner of 34 years, Ilana Kloss, whose arrival is equally unclear.

BOTTOM LINE Loose ends and a tone more historic than personal add up to a less than intimate portrait.

GRADE B

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