The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)
Starring: Helen Slater, Christian Slater, Keith Gordon, Yeardley Smith, Barry Tubb, Martha Gehman, and Peter Coyote (with a big nerd shout-out to Dean Stockwell!)
Logline (from IMDb):
A Texas teenager cuts her hair short and becomes an outlaw martyr with her brother and friends.
Two Christmases ago, I was at a friend’s White Elephant party, and I’d finally received my gift. It was a big box full of really random stuff. I’m talking magnetic tape, tissues, and a bar of soap random. Also in this box were two DVDs and a Blu-ray: Congo, The Last Boy Scout, and the “Fair is Fair” edition of The Legend of Billie Jean on Blu-ray.
I hadn’t seen any of these movies.
Later, my secret gift-giver, Sam, outed himself at the party, and I thanked him, genuinely grateful, because I hadn’t seen any of these films (and, to be honest, was glad that I didn’t have to pay to see them or know they exist). He immediately zeroed in on The Legend of Billie Jean, being all “Oh my God! You’re going to love this one! I think you in particular will really like it.”
Me in particular? Okay…
Others started gathering around and squealing enthusiastically. Oh my God! The Legend of Billie Jean! I love that movie! How had I never even heard of this movie before? And how is it that a bunch of people even younger than me had heard of it, and I was six when this movie came out?
It sat on my shelf unwatched until New Year’s Day this year, when I had some friends over for brunch and I busted it out after one of them said it was one of their favorite movies.
Meet Billie Jean and Binx (played by Helen Slater and Christian Slater – no relation), teenage siblings in Corpus Christi, Texas who live in a trailer park. Really the only thing they have going for them at this point are their looks and Binx’s awesome new scooter. Billie Jean gets hit on by a local bro (bruh? brah?) named Hubie. She shuts him down, and like any rational person would, he steals Binx’s scooter while he and Billie Jean are swimming in a lake, and totals it.
She goes to a mechanic, and gets an estimate for $608 to fix the bike, which is a really specific amount. Not $600, not $610, but $608. She tries to go to the police to get them to help, but Detective Ringwald is like ZERO help and gives her advice that’s the equivalent of when parents tell you that if you ignore bullies, they’ll go away. (Real talk to kids being bullied: They DON’T “just go away.” Talk to an adult you trust and get help!)
Anyway, she goes to Hubie’s dad, Mr. Pyatt’s shop to get the money she and Binx are owed for the bike, either from Hubie, or from his dad.
And this is where shit gets real.
Under the pretense of giving her the money, Mr. Pyatt lures her upstairs where he tries to proposition Billie Jean! A layaway plan in which he would get laid, and she’d get her money in installments. Obviously, she’s like NOPE. But then he tries to rape her right then and there! Thankfully, her friends and brother were waiting outside. They come in after Billie Jean after she’s fought Mr. Pyatt off and comes downstairs. Binx has found a gun in the shop, which Mr. Pyatt tells him isn’t loaded – but it totally is – and Binx ends up shooting Mr. Pyatt! He’s not killed, but he’s wounded.
Meanwhile, Billie Jean, Binx, and their friends Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and one of my favorite characters, not just in this movie but OF ALL TIME, Putter (played to perfection by Yeardley Smith) end up going on the lam as outlaws as Mr. Pyatt reports them for shooting him. Detective Ringwald sympathizes with them, and attempts to bring them in “for their own good” (and he’s probably just a little bit guilty that he was absolutely craptastic at his job and none of this would’ve happened had he just looked into it rather than dismissing her!).
Long story short, while on the lam, the friends meet a rich dude named Lloyd that Billie Jean sort of falls for and they hole up with him for a while. It’s at his house, after seeing their story all over the news and watching 1948’s Joan of Arc, she decides to give her self a badass makeover and lean into the legend that has started to come up around her and her friends, sending a message to news outlets demanding the $608 dollars from Mr. Pyatt that she and her brother are owed!
Wackiness ensues, and a Legend is born!
What amazed me the most about this movie is how feminist a movie it is! Sure, it’s in a cheesy 1980s way, but this film definitely has a feminist bent without hitting you over the head with it.
At the beginning of the film, we see Billie Jean scantily clad while swimming in the lake. Throughout the movie, pretty much everyone – from the people in her life, to people consuming her image in the media – remarks on her good looks. This film is about the price young women pay simply to exist (Hint: it’s way more than $608). They are taken advantage of by boys their age as well as older men. If they’re traditionally attractive, things are assumed about them that aren’t assumed about other girls. Their confidence is diminished, no matter how intelligent, beautiful, or assertive they are, because the world is constantly telling them that the only things they have that are worth anything are their bodies. We see all of this pummel Billie Jean in the first half of the movie, so that when she makes the decision to shed it all, it’s all the sweeter.
Even before her transformation, Billie Jean is a strong-willed, smart, kind-hearted character who goes all out to defend her brother, and later, her friends. She’s the one who goes to the police about the scooter, and when that doesn’t work, she goes directly to Mr. Pyatt. Yet, she’s not a “badass.” In Helen Slater’s performance, you see that she’s scared. You see that she’s unsure. She’s still a teenage girl figuring things out. Her bravery isn’t about not being afraid, it’s about acting in spite of her fear. It’s about not letting those who would take advantage of her keep her from her goal.
For her transformation into the “Billie Jean” that ends up becoming a legend and hero to young people everywhere, she takes her inspiration from an influential woman from history – Joan of Arc – who fought to defend her country with everything she had, and was burned at the stake for her trouble. No one convinced Billie Jean to do it, or gave her the idea. She was inspired and thought it through all on her own. Later, when things change, she makes her decisions based on what’s best for the safety of her friends. She never backs down, but she always remains considerate of others.
Billie Jean isn’t the only amazing female character in this. I’m absolutely in love with Putter, the youngest, tomboy-ish friend that tags along with them. Watching Putter go through this movie is one of the most interesting depictions of a young girl going through puberty that I’ve ever seen as we see her slowly morph from a girl who eats all the time and tries to steal candy by shoving it under her shirt, to a young woman who’s gotten her period, asks for a diaphragm, and stands up for her friend in a police precinct. It’s rare that a female coming-of-age story is told at all, especially in the 1980s, and especially with such humor and poignancy and allowing the character such agency. Ophelia is less well-executed, but even she takes a journey as she is inspired by Billie Jean to go on the lam when she was only going to drive them to a certain point, and screams at the cops when they try to get Billie’s location out of her. Between those two and Billie Jean’s growth, we have a wonderful examination of young girls growing into powerful young women.
Equally impressive are the boys in the girls’ lives. Sure there are predators like Mr. Pyatt and Hubie, and the general public who would wear her image and sensationalize her story. But there are also guys like Binx, who supports and defends his sister, but defers to her when necessary. There’s no macho posing with him. Sometimes, he looks after Billie Jean, sometimes Billie Jean looks after him. And then there’s rich boy Lloyd (who’s also the son of Dean Stockwell’s DA), who comes off skeevy at first, but when we (and Billie Jean) get to know him, we realize that he has more depth than we thought, and that he values Billie Jean, not for her looks, but for her character. He supports and encourages her plans, and becomes a great sounding board for her. He genuinely respects her, in addition to being attracted to her.
And of course, there’s the fact that once Billie Jean becomes “Billie Jean,” both young girls and young boys are inspired by her. She becomes a larger-than-life folk hero in androgynous clothing and people of all genders start dressing like her and being inspired by her. This isn’t a “girl power” movie – it’s a “youth power” movie, and it’s nice to see a young female character as the face of that, without emphasis being placed on her Face.
Lastly, we have a rare instance in this film of a sexual predator actually being brought to justice by the young woman he victimized. Not only does Billie Jean force him to admit what he did to her in front of the whole town, but the town stands by and lets his store burn down. They have spoken – they will not tolerate this kind of behavior. It’s a far cry from what we read in the news today: media outlets and citizens alike being more concerned with the lives of alleged perpetrators than they are with their victims. No one tells Billie Jean that she “ruined this man’s life.” They stand with her.
The Legend of Billie Jean isn’t a perfect movie (there’s plenty in it that’s just ridiculous), but it’s an inspiring one. And really, isn’t inspiration what we want from our films? There’s a reason why this is a cult classic. If you push aside the cheesy 1980s trappings, there’s actually a movie that makes you think under there.
On a scale of okay to really fucking rad, I give The Legend of Billie Jean two fists up!
Oh, and you were right, Sam. I totally loved this fucking movie.
FAIR IS FAIR!
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