Directed by Matthew Robbins (1985)
by Jessica Landivar-Prescott
The Legend of Billie Jean. When I think about this movie I am filled with nostalgia and a sense of injustice. The movie was made in 1985 and stars Helen Slater, in the titular role, Peter Coyote, Keith Gordon, and Christian Slater in his first feature-length film. Its the first movie that, as a small child, I watched over and over again. It was my best movie friend. I understood why it was important then and I still feel the same way about its importance, now.
In place of summarizing the film, I highly recommend that you watch it (its available now on iTunes) or look it up on the internet. Just don't read the critics’ comments about it. For this is where the sense of bloody injustice comes in.
What I love most about this movie is the emotional progression and virtuous rebelliousness of its main character, Billie Jean Davy. She is at first a sweet and physically beautiful girl, of an economically poor family (they live in “the trailers” in Corpus Christie, TX) who is enjoying her summer, scooting around with her younger brother, Binx.
After an act of violence to her brother, she confronts the perpetrator, Huby, and his father, Mr. Pyatt. Billie Jean, in her naïveté, follows Mr. Pyatt to the upstairs room in his beachfront shop to collect the money that Huby owes her family for the violent destruction of Binx’s motor scooter.
Mr. Pyatt, in keeping with the sleazy horribleness of his son, sexually assaults her and she escapes, a hair away from being raped, with the scene ending in Binx shooting Mr. Pyatt in his upper arm.
This is where the movie truly begins. Billie Jean has now lost her innocence and goes on the lam with her brother Binx and their two friends, Ophelia and Putter. With this first propulsion in the plot, perfectly enhanced by the soundtrack, its difficult not to get swept up in the sense of dread & chaos that they’re sinking into. The scenes are filled with audio of news reports on the shooting, energetic songs and lots of running, hiding and fast driving. Throughout the film, Billie Jean keeps on getting stripped of her simplicity & identity by the cops, by a money-hungry, exploitative and lying Mr. Pyatt, by the media and by the ensuing sensationalism surrounding her story. As the search for BJ & company surges so does her progression from a simple girl to an unwitting teenage icon and finally, a heroine. She takes ahold of her persona, cuts her hair off and publicly declares her war for truth and justice via the media that tried to pin shame and criminality on her brother, her friends, and her.
She handles their predicament. She endures it. She senses the outcome. She takes the reigns. She does not stop. She retains a sense of humor and of love. She doesn’t give into celebrity. She is in it for the long haul and this is why she becomes an icon to legions of youth. They want to emulate her style. They join in her battle cry, “Fair is Fair." They are ready to trust that she will stick it to THE MAN. But simultaneously they are not aware that purchasing merchandise with her name and image on it only fuels her exploitation. *Full disclosure, as I write this article I am wearing a really cool, spray-painted Billie Jean t-shirt.
Billie Jean remains a step ahead of the cops that pursue her, maternally takes care of her tribe and allows herself to bond with Lloyd, the son of the local DA, who becomes their sham hostage.
This is why the sense of injustice I feel comes storming in. This film was, at the time, and still now, mostly looked down upon by critics and therefore not fancied in retrospectives of films of the 1980s. The walking bible of movie criticism, Janet Maslin, wrote the following movie review for the NYT in 1985, at the time of LoBJ’s theatrical release [excerpted]:
“‘The Legend of Billie Jean’ is competently made, sometimes attractively acted (particularly by Peter Coyote, as the stern but evidently inept policeman who somehow can't catch these high-profile renegades), and bankrupt beyond belief. It's hard to imagine that even the film makers, let alone audiences, can believe in a sweet, selfless heroine who just can't help becoming a superstar.”’
So there’s that. But hold the bus, Janet - I BELIEVED IN BILLIE JEAN! What’s not to believe about her being a sweet and selfless heroine? It absolutely keeps in line with who she is at the beginning of the movie, through to the end. Why can’t moviegoers see the vulnerable parts of a strong female character without it being “unbelievable?" Billie Jean’s decision-making instincts follow the ups and downs of their plight. She’s not portrayed as supreme or without injury. That’s more believable to me than a flawless, “tough as nails” male hero. I posit that her portrayal by the director predates the manner in which Uma Thurman’s character, Beatrix Kiddo, or Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor are allowed to show their vulnerabilities and remain powerful. But maybe because BJ doesn’t literally kick ass (though, she does kick several men in the groin) it wasn’t considered plausible for her to be a heroine. Who knows. Janet Maslin’s contention that the movie is “bankrupt beyond belief" does not hold a bloody drop of water with me or, if I may, with the group of good folks that have formed a cult following around this movie.
I now venture to state that my sense of injustice begins to border on “I’m mad as hell” for the fact that The Legend of Billie Jean should have been then, and should be now, considered by my fellow feminists as an important film reflecting tenets of the cause. I mean, WTF?
The character of Billie Jean, a female lead in 1985, is given a story arc which highlights her fortitude and does not propose that any male figure will offer deliverance. No one rescues her. She, alone, is responsible to resolve how to be an outlaw within her own skin. Billie Jean Davy is a protester, sending a message to the patriarchy that they can no longer stomp down on the younger generation. She doesn’t shrink back from it at any point; in fact, she becomes more resolute, while not denying her vulnerabilities, her bewilderment. Her commitment to her morals, her fight for justice, the shedding of her identity in favor of adapting to her new role as a sensitive warrior, finding inspiration in Joan of Arc, and her willful direction in the outcome of their plight, should all be grounds for LoBJ’s inclusion in the feminist film canon. Oh, and not to mention that the movie presents to the viewer the issues of media exploitation of young women, sexual assault, and sensationalism of news by the media. Yeah, no big.
Looking at it in a cynical light, perhaps if one of the indie film directors of the ‘80s had held the reigns of LoBJ, if Minor Threat or Sonic Youth had been featured on the soundtrack, or if the script had melancholically focused on how discontented the characters are with their lot in life, perhaps it would have been placed in an elite class of films of the decade.
But then we wouldn’t have Pat Benatar’s theme song “Invincible” to shout out along with, emphatically. We would not have the mall scene, with Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” blaring in the background. We’d have missed out on Ophelia’s “Oh mah gawd's" and Putter’s childlike obsession with candy. And maybe Keith Gordon wouldn't have as much swagger or as many funny lines. (Lets not even go there.)
I don’t want to think about how LoBJ could be esoterically neatened up for critical approval. To enjoy this movie and movies like it you have to live in the space where high-brow and low-brow co-exist comfortably. Just like I did as a child (and still do now), when I first became friends with The Legend of Billie Jean. When it was okay to have some holes in the plot for the sake of memorable and emotional montages. When great performances (Peter Coyote) are thrown together with “meh” acting (Christian Slater). Extrapolate from this movie what you will, my fellow LoBJ cult members and I consider it an especially lovable and wildly underrated film.