HBO: Billie Jean King: Portrait Of A Pioneer

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The Peabody citation for HBO Sports’ “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer” was a bit of a backhanded compliment: “Unusually substantial for a sports biography, the film persuasively confirms the tennis champion’s heroic status in women’s history as well as athletics,” the judges said.
“Billie Jean King fought her whole life so that women are taken seriously on the field of playing sports. We’re still fighting to be taken seriously in the field of television,” quipped Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports.
HBO Sports, in fact, has been much honored by the Peabodies, with seven awards, including the latest, making it by far the most honored sports division. But not everyone recognizes the serious work that comes out of the sports arena, Mr. Greenburg said.
“In general, people think those of us that work in sports television are like kids playing in a sandbox. They think sports can’t be taken seriously and those of us that are in the field just point cameras on games and don’t have a lot of depth or intelligence,” he noted. “We’ve battled it our whole lives.”
Earning Peabody Awards, he added, helps change the perspective.
This year’s winning profile of the tennis great, which first aired in April 2006, was 10 years in the making. After HBO’s 1994 film on another tennis pioneer, Arthur Ashe, Mr. Greenburg said his colleagues-including producer Margaret Grossi, associate producer Helen Russell and former Wimbledon announcer and current “Real Sports” correspondent Mary Carillo—began hounding him every year to take a similar look at Ms. King.
He wasn’t opposed to the project, he said. “It wasn’t as much it took me so long as it took Billie Jean King a while to be comfortable telling her full story, her true story.”
Told without a narrator, the one-hour film takes a conventional beginning-to-end approach, starting with family photographs from Billie Jean Moffitt’s childhood in Long Beach, Calif., through her 60th birthday party. It chronicles her swift rise to the top of women’s tennis, the much-publicized 1973 showdown of the sexes with male tennis star and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs and the eventually discarded 1981 palimony suit from a former female lover that exposed private details of the then-married Ms. King’s personal life.
But those well-known broad outlines don’t begin to define Ms. King’s contributions to American culture. She used the celebrity that followed her considerable athletic talents, along with a steady determination, to bring a new parity for women, fighting for bigger prize money in the professional world and money to fund girls’ athletics in the schools through Title IX.
She also helped launch World Team Tennis and the Women’s Sports Foundation, all while waging an inner battle in her personal life as her marriage dissolved. The story told in the film is in many ways the story of the culture’s grappling with a greater public acceptance of homosexuality. She was the first woman to make the cover of Sports Illustrated as its sportswoman of the year, an honor she shared with a man; but, as the film recounts, her choice was at one point in doubt because of rumors that she was a lesbian.
Mr. Greenburg said the producers made clear from the beginning to Ms. King and her partner, Ilana Kloss, that the whole story needed to be told, not just the story of a tennis great, and the couple agreed. He believes Ms. King’s interviews with Ms. Carillo, in which she discusses her own evolving sexuality and relationships, were “a cathartic experience. Obviously she had never opened up quite like that before.
“She saw we were treating it as a truth serum and she was happy with it. We were able to showcase her soul.”
HBO Sports’ next profile subject wasn’t able to give any such revealing interviews. This month HBO Sports is premiering a documentary on racehorse Barbaro, which explores how the thoroughbred “became America’s pet,” said Mr. Greenburg.
Up next will be a two-hour program on baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers, which HBO is using as a way to examine post-World War II America, in the decade from 1947 to 1957. The fall will bring a look at the college sports rivalry between the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. And in February, boxer Joe Lewis’s hero-to-tragedy life will come under the lens. “No one has really dug deep enough to give him his proper place in American


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