Looking back it’s a wonder The Legend of Billie Jean wasn’t a box office hit. Heck, it’s baffling to me how it’s not some kind of cult classic. Or maybe it is and I’m just unaware. Either way, the movie has a wonderful habit of being of its time, 1985, while also being indefatigably timeless.
Matthew Robbins ekes out a modern-day folk legend with Slater’s Billie Jean as the folk hero. Only instead of the usually stoic male heroes, Robbins gives us a young girl trying desperately to figure out the right thing to do in a system designed to do the opposite. The success of Billie Jean comes from its two stars: a luminescent and striking Helen Slater and the quiet, even-tempered Peter Coyote.
Billie Jean is the type of character teenagers are drawn to; rebellious, kind, and indignant to the world around them and in particular to the authority that runs that world. Coyote’s Lt. Larry Ringwald is the police officer hot on Billie Jean’s tail who isn’t that convinced that she’s all that dangerous.
It’s a type of performance that would normally be star-making. But in 1985, Billie Jean, even with its low budget, bombed and bombed hard. A shame considering how iconic the image of the short-haired punk glam Billie Jean is in popular culture. It is an image so iconic that I wager more people know the image than know anything about the movie.
Slater’s Billie Jean is breathtaking because it seems so effortless. That Slater is charismatic is obvious. But she plays Billie Jean’s naivety in a way that endears us to her. Her eventual growth into a revolutionary icon is rapturous because it’s so rare to see in movies; the very simple glorious act of a young girl realizing the power of self.
The way Slater’s movement and posture change throughout the film, as she goes from an unsure girl to a reluctant icon, is damn near a tour de force that seems ridiculously ignored in film discussion. It’s not a campy performance or even one that is easily imitated. Slater’s Billie Jean seems rooted in something unquantifiable. In a way, she achieves the actor’s dream of making the character and actor indistinguishable from one another.
No one knows why movies work or don’t work, not really. It’s all a guessing game. Though if I were to hazard a guess it would seem because Billie Jean is aimed at teenagers, teenage girls specifically. You could argue that movies aimed at teenage girls have often done well and you’d be right.
But Billie Jean is the odd woman out because it’s not about a girl falling in love, discovering the joys of sex, or even finding salvation from the love of a good man. It’s a massive middle finger to society and “the patriarchy.” Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal’s script never once have Billie Jean being rescued, or even hint that salvation lies in any of the male leads.
Circumstances may have forced her to run away, but it is her decision and hers alone to become an outlaw. If that weren’t enough, she is riddled with flaws. Whatever issues I may have with the pacing, Konner and Rosenthal’s insistence to make Billie Jean just an average seventeen-year-old girl is a masterstroke.
Billie Jean is told entirely through the lens of a seventeen-year-old girl. Much like Flashdance, the narrative seems silly unless we are willing to remember a time when we made rash decisions spurned by the moment. Not to mention that, unlike her male counterparts, much of Billie Jean’s decisions are rooted in love and a sense of fairness as opposed to any righteous indignation.
(Trigger warning for attempted sexual assault briefly mentioned in this paragraph)In the beginning, Billie Jean only wants payment for her little brother, Binx’s (Christian Slater), motor scooter. The one that Hubie Pyatt (Barry Tubb), and his friends destroyed. But then Hubie’s father, who has no name other than Mr. Pyatt (Richard Bradford), tries to rape Billie Jean. As she escapes, Mr. Pyatt is shot in the shoulder by Binx on accident.
The plot is fairly simple as plots go but the story is more complex. Hubie and his friends harass Billie Jean, something that Robbins and the script implies happens a lot. A growing girl, Billie Jean is both aware of and unconcerned with her body and how people view it. It is, after all, hers and not theirs.
Robbins interweaves Billie Jean’s growth into womanhood without using sex as the entryway. Instead, Robbins and his writers use how Billie Jean’s own body is used without her consent. One of the boys who harassed Billie Jean, in the beginning, takes pictures of her while she’s swimming in a nearby pond in her underwear and cut-off tee-shirt.
Robbins and his cameraman Jeffrey L. Kimball frame Billie Jean not as a sexual object but as a girl who is viewed as a sexual object. After Billie Jean, Binx, and her two friends, Putter (Yeardley Smith) and Ophelia (Martha Gehman) go on the run, Mr. Pyatt sells pictures of Billie Jean.
The pictures were taken by Hubie’s friends while Billie Jean and her brother swam in a nearby pond. They show a young girl, wet and in her underwear. The male gaze is an insidious thing. While the pictures taken by Hubie’s friends may seem sexual, it is only because we are conditioned to believe a woman’s body when scantily clad is meant to be titillating.
I know from experience how a Missouri summer is unforgiving. I can’t imagine a Texas summer. Billie Jean is poor, it is 1985, and she merely wishes to cool off. Her outfit is not an outfit of a pin-up model, it is merely the swimming clothes of a poor seventeen-year-old girl.
Mr. Pyatt sells the pictures of Billie Jean. The man who had attempted to exploit and rape Billie Jean earlier, has once again, found a way to use her body without her consent. An act that Lt. Ringwald observes and begins to wonder if the Pyatts are telling the whole story.
Ringwald seems to sense something is off about Mr. Pyatt’s version of things. He arrives at the scene of the shooting and is shown a picture of Billie Jean. He recognizes her as the girl who came to him for help and he turned away. “Aw damn. I think I blew this one.”
Coyote is an American treasure. He is an actor with a voice once described by Ken Burns as sounding like “God’s stenographer.” He has a way of talking and moving in his roles that anchors whatever movie he’s in.
Ringwald moves through Billie Jean as a wry observer. At first, he seems reluctant to believe the Pyatt’s stories, lightly punching holes in their accounts and observations, silently passing judgment on their actions. As the film goes on, he becomes the cool voice of reason when District Attorney Muldaur (Dean Stockwell) becomes involved. By the end, he is a Greek chorus, not for Billie Jean, but for those around him.
But through it, all Slater carries the film. Billie Jean didn’t want celebrity or endorsements. All she wanted was six hundred and eight dollars from the men who destroyed her little brother’s scooter. Soon, the youth of Corpus Christi, Texas begin to enshrine her as a local legend. The news reports begin to call Billie Jean and her friends a “gang of outlaws.”
One night, while on the run, they stay in an empty mansion. Though they soon learn one of the occupants is still there, a teenage boy, Lloyd (Keith Gordon). While there Billie sees a movie about Joan of Arc and soon begins to realize the power of stories and legends. Shearing off her golden locks she emerges a new woman born in the fire of a revolution of self. She makes a video where she demands the payment, tells of the attempted rape, and essentially rails against the injustice of the system. “Fair is fair,” she cries.
Intermingled into all of Billie Jean’s growth are Robbins and the writer’s sly observation of class. Billie Jean and Binx live in a trailer park. The Pyatt’s own a tourist attraction and while not as “wealthy” as Lloyd and his family, they do maintain a form of status. Billie Jean’s fight isn’t against an oligarchy, it’s against those who have just a little power over others and abuse it.
In other words, it’s the indignation of a young girl realizing the world isn’t fair and can’t understand why no one seems to be trying to make it so. Billie Jean isn’t a superhero, nor is she a young soul, wise beyond her years, which is what makes Slater’s performance so arresting.
She’s just a girl discovering things about herself, her beliefs, and the world around her. Billie Jean did not mean to become an outlaw or a revolutionary, she just wanted what was fair. In the end, she is a better folk hero than most others simply because she came to it on her terms.
Billie Jean never leaves Corpus Christi because she refuses to run away. Soon her “fans” start cutting their hair like her. They also buy clothes with Billie Jean’s name on them from Mr. Pyatt’s store, to show their support. A sly dig at how sometimes showing support through consumerism can inadvertently prop up the very thing we’re railing against.
In one instance, while waiting on Putter and Ophelia, some kids approach Billie Jean and ask her for help. What follows is a strangely hypnotic scene. The kids lead her to a house where a young boy is being beaten by his father.
She goes inside and stands by the boy’s side. The father recognizing Billie Jean, and having heard all the wild stories of her and her outlaw gang, backs down. She leaves the house and escorts the boy to safety.
Robbins and Kimball shoot Billie Jean with warm natural colors. There’s no overt stylization that might clash with scenes like the previously mentioned one. But to say the movie lacks potent imagery would be untrue.
The imagery is potent and hauntingly lyrical at times. Billie Jean emerging from the pond for example. It foreshadows Billie Jean’s emerging from Lloyd’s bathroom with her Joan of Arc haircut. This in turn leads us to the end with Billie Jean standing by as a statute of herself engulfed in flames that also consume Mr. Pyatt’s souvenir store. It’s the simplicity of the images, like the story, that makes the emotional punches land.
Underneath it all is Craig Safan’s score and Pat Benatar’s quiet revolutionary theme “Invincible”. “Won’t anybody help us? What are we waiting for? We can’t afford to be innocent, stand up, and face the enemy.”
Robbins and the script at times seem to lose the thread, but Safan and Benatar’s music help to pick it back up. But whatever flaws the movie may have I find them forgivable because Robbins has so thoroughly enshrined the narrative in Billie Jean’s point of view that it’s hard to be so glib towards it.
So few movies for teenagers feel as if they are speaking directly to them. Most feel as if they are talking down or up to them. Robbins and his writers somehow manage to speak directly to that moment in our lives where naivety gives way to righteous fury which leads to a feeling of hopelessness. But that’s what makes The Legend of Billie Jean work. After all if Billie Jean can figure it out, then there’s hope for the rest of us yet.
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Image courtesy of TriStar Pictures