THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN is a cool little 1985 stick-it-to-the-man teen feel-good movie that I think still has alot of relevance today. Helen Slater (SUPERGIRL) plays Billie Jean, a Texas trailer park girl who lives parent-free with her young brother Binx (Christian Slater, no relation, MINDHUNTERS). One day they’re riding around on his motor scooter when they get harassed by a carload of giggly rich bros who I think are following the grade school throw-rocks-at-the-girl-you-like method of flirting. But things escalate until the scooter is damaged.
Billie Jean would not be legendary if she put up with this type of treatment. Instead she goes to the store owned by the ringleader Hubie Pyatt (Barry Tubb, Wolfman from TOP GUN)’s dad (Richard Bradford, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI) and demands the $608 it will cost to repair the scooter. Mr. Pyatt pretends to be reasonable but then tries to get her to have sex with him for the money, which is very much not in the spirit of the request. As Billie Jean struggles to get away, Binx accidentally shoots Mr. Classy with his own gun. So Billie Jean and Binx and their friends Ophelia (Martha Gehman, F/X) and Putter (Yeardley Smith, THREE O’CLOCK HIGH) go on the run.
They spend the night in an abandoned mini-golf course. Pretty cool hideout, later contrasted with a scene on a rich people country club golf course, where they don’t belong.
They see themselves as outlaws, but Billie Jean is a nice girl, so she leaves IOU notes when they steal supplies. It seems sincere, though I have a hard time picturing her going back and straightening everything out after the movie ends.
Pyatt offers a reward/bounty, turning the whole thing into a local media sensation. They have to try not to be recognized. One person who spots them is a pre-TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 Caroline “Stretch” Williams. Her character is just called “Woman in Pickup Truck,” but it’s a significant scene:
Eventually they break into a they-think-unoccupied mansion, underlining the have-nots vs. the haves theme. It turns out the owners’ son Lloyd (Keith Gordon, CHRISTINE) is home, and he scares them. He takes a liking to Billie Jean and suggests that they pretend to take him hostage, since his father (Dean Stockwell, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.) is the district attorney. So this is escalating into some Patty Hearst shit.
Then the most significant thing happens: Billie Jean catches the end of Otto Preminger’s SAINT JOAN on TV and is captivated. She spontaneously cuts her hair short, puts on a cool jacket and records a video for the press. It’s both a realization of society’s mistreatment of her and a savvy bit of marketing – giving her cause a style.
My favorite part of the movie is when she’s running away and a car drives up next to her. It’s shot from inside so you don’t see the driver and are in suspense about whether it’s someone following her or offering her a ride. It turns out to be the latter, but not from anyone she knows. It’s just some girl sporting her hair cut and dangly earrings. A fan. We start to see a movement in this town, an army of Billie Jeans who help her hide out, and even act as decoys.
Meanwhile, at Pyatt’s shop, Billie Jean fans keep asking if they can have the wanted posters he printed up. He sells one, then starts a cottage industry of Billie Jean merchandising.
Peter Coyote (FEMME FATALE) plays Ringwald, the cop trying to find them, and he’s sincerely trying to find a fair solution. He feels a duty to, because Billie Jean came to him about the scooter in the first place and he didn’t take it very seriously.
In many ways this is a standard outlaw-becomes-folk-hero story, complete with man-on-the-street interviews to show that everybody roots for Billie Jean and is inspired by her rebellion. But I think the emphasis on her is significant. It was her brother who did the accidental shooting! That Mr. Pyatt focuses his rage on Billie Jean shows that it’s really about a girl resisting his attempt at sexual degradation, not about the shooting. This is also why he sells posters of her in a swimsuit.
I think Billie Jean’s titleistical legend also shows the space in our culture for female icons of this type. True, outside of the rich vs. poor, BILLIE JEAN ignores cultural divisions PUMP UP THE VOLUME style, showing pretty much everybody rooting for her. There’s no talk radio station riling up one side of the political spectrum against her or MRAs being threatened by the feminist part of her message. But young women in particular can’t help but see her as an aspirational symbol. They cut their hair like Billie Jean so they can feel like her and know that they are powerful enough to stand up to the bullshit they’ve been receiving their whole lives.
Though the movie came out more than 30 years ago it kept making me think of this year’s release of WONDER WOMAN and how emotional it was for many women I know to see that specific type of female power depicted on screen. And I can enjoy Wonder Woman and Furiosa and Billie Jean but I’m sure there’s a part of them that speaks specifically to the experiences of women just as John McClane connects to my feelings about masculinity. I think more than anything THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN is about the power of these sorts of symbols or role models.
Then again, the scene at the end where SPOILER Billie Jean leads her fans in burning their Billie Jean merch could be interpreted as a denunciation of this sort of idolatry. It could mean that she wants them to think for themselves instead of trying to be like her. But it could also just be a way to remove all of Mr. Pyatt’s exploitative products from the earth. I’m not sure. Either way, we don’t need a commemorative poster to admire Billie Jean’s refusal to accept injustice just because she’s poor and a nobody and a girl and they’re rich and respected and protected by the system and male.
This was the first feature by the screenwriting team of Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner. Their JEWEL OF THE NILE came out the same year, and they also wrote SUPERMAN IV, STAR TREK VI, MERCURY RISING and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG among other things. Okay, I should say that some of the other things are THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, the Tim Burton version of PLANET OF THE APES and THE SORCERER’s APPRENTICE.
I’m much more curious about the director, Matthew Robbins, a lesser known member of the Lucas-Spielberg circle. At USC he wrote one of the treatments for Lucas’s short film ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB. Several years later he got a story credit on Spielberg’s SUGARLAND EXPRESS (which has much in common with LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN) and did uncredited work on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. As a director, he poached Mark Hamill for CORVETTE SUMMER and ILM for DRAGONSLAYER. Under Spielberg’s production umbrella he did one of the Amazing Stories episodes I remember most (the one where a guy gets magnetized) and that movie *batteries not included. In ’89 he did the tv movie MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS AND LOVERS, which I bring up only because it’s written by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz of AMERICAN GRAFFITI/HOWARD THE DUCK fame. He has not directed since 1991’s Benji/Lassie parody BINGO, which I have not seen in a long time but I remember as being really funny. There’s a part where the dog gets set up for murder and goes to prison with humans and then a guard yells at them all and wants to know which one of them is doing all that barking.
But that’s not the end of it! Robbins resurfaced in the late ’90s when Guillermo Del Toro directed his screenplay MIMIC. The association continued with Robbins writing DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, CRIMSON PEAK and the might-never-happen stop motion PINOCCHIO. Meanwhile, Robbins went international, working on three Bollywood films, a Belgian one and a Brazilian one. I wonder how that happened? One day, somebody might have to tell The Legend of Matthew Robbins.
If you want a nice little slice of the-parts-of-the’80s-we-get-a-kick-out-of, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN is a good one. You got a super young, not even imitating Jack Nicholson yet Slater wearing a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off and a zebra striped painter’s cap. You got Supergirl looking like Joan Jett’s cousin wearing a wet suit jacket I think? And DePalma’s favorite young nerd Gordon plays the cool guy and they’re towing around Lisa Simpson and I had no idea that the Pat Benatar anthem “Invincible” is actually called “Invincible (Theme from The Legend of Billie Jean).” That’s why they play it over and over again in the movie.
The movie has the exact same feeling as the song, so if you like one, check out the other.