My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 82, The Legend of Billie Jean

82 – The Legend of Billie Jean:

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Just to clear up confusion, I’ll answer the questions that I always get asked whenever I mention this film. No it has no relation to Michael Jackson’s song “Billie Jean”, and nor is it anything to do with the tennis player Billie Jean King. Are we clear? The Legend of Billie Jean is one of those weird films that was a complete flop when it came out. It was so insignificant that the first DVD wasn’t produced until 2011. Yet by the late 90s, it had an unbelievably strong cult fanbase. Where did they come from? Two likely places; the first is that the movie was run on cable a lot. So many people became familiar with it because it was always on TV. The second is the song that served as the theme – Pat Benatar’s hit “Invincible”. She likes to mock the movie whenever she performs the song, saying “this is from the worst movie ever made” – and I wouldn’t be surprised if a good portion of the viewers checked it out for that reason. But Helen Slater still gets plenty of fan attention for both this and her other cult hit Supergirl – enough that she attends conventions regularly. So I probably shouldn’t waste any more time and get straight to the review. Fair is fair, after all.

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Our setting is Corpus Christi, Texas at some point during a very warm summer. We get to meet the two Davy siblings – Billie Jean and Binx. The titular Billie Jean is Helen Slater and her brother is…

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Oh hey there, teenage Christian Slater. Absolutely rocking the blond hair, I see. Just to clear things up, Helen Slater and Christian Slater play brother and sister in this. They are not brother and sister in real life, as they’ve been asked for decades (because of this film). Christian Slater claims that at the time he felt they were destined to be together because they shared the same last name.

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Again, missed opportunity.

Billie Jean and Binx run into some bother with the local bullies. The ring leader Hubie Pyatt steals Binx’s motorcycle after he embarrasses him. Although Billie Jean warns him to just wait, Binx tears off to try and get it back. Billie Jean runs over to get her friends Ophelia and Putter to drive her to the train station. You may be thinking you’ve heard Putter’s voice somewhere before…

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Yep, that’s her. Yeardley Smith, before her voice would forever be linked to Lisa Simpson. Billie Jean reports the incident to the police, but they aren’t too receptive. They want her to wait two days before going any further. When the teens return home, we hear a smack to imply that Putter’s mother isn’t much better than Homer and Marge. Even worse – Billie Jean finds the bike outside wrecked. And poor Binx…

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Billie Jean goes down to the seaside shop to give Hubie a bill for the bike to be repaired – $608. His father agrees to give her the money. But he agrees to give it to her upstairs, which should give you a hint that he’s not the most trustworthy fellow. Sure enough, he only gives Billie Jean $50 and intends to take the rest out in trade so to speak. But Binx and Ophelia have got suspicious at how long she’s taking and come into the shop. Binx finds a gun in the cash register and wisely points it at Mr Pyatt when he sees him threatening his sister. Mr Pyatt says the gun isn’t loaded, but it lets off a shot anyway.

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Making this the opposite of what happened to Christian Slater in Heathers.

The teens flee the crime scene and quickly go home to pack their stuff and go on the run. Putter sees what’s happening and invites herself along. Ophelia is reluctant to tag along at first and drops them at a derelict golf course. But she quickly comes around and stays with them too, lending them her dad’s car. Binx wants to take off all the way to Vermont, but they don’t even have enough gas to get out of town. And Billie Jean tells them that they’re not to steal. But something strange happens when they’re in a supermarket; two teenagers recognise Billie Jean from the paper. And they buy the food for them, because they think what she did was cool. They even ask her to sign the newspaper.

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Good news – Mr Pyatt is still alive and is recovering from being shot. Billie Jean calls home, and Lt Ringwald is already there. She agrees to turn herself in as long as Mr Pyatt gives them the $608 he owes them. Downtown at Mr Pyatt’s shop, he has a picture of Billie Jean in the window – and a bunch of people want to buy it. Mr Pyatt sees potential for a profit and says he’ll get plenty more printed. At the mall, Billie Jean and friends nick a couple of walkie talkies – and Binx eyes a toy gun. For the toys, Billie Jean at least leaves IOUs.

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Mr Pyatt and Lt Ringwald are waiting in the mall with the money to meet Billie Jean. When she arrives, Pyatt reveals to her that the envelope in his hands is empty – and sicks Hubie on her! But this is Billie Jean we’re talking about; she knees him in the balls a second time and escapes. Ringwald chases after her, but Billie Jean tosses marbles on the floor to slow him down. And Binx rolls a dumpster in front of the door to block the police, also holding up the toy gun (making Ringwald think it’s real). Given that this happened in the middle of a public mall, it receives a lot of press coverage. And the teens just think Billie Jean is the coolest. The news report also has Putter and Ophelia’s pictures.

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Now they can all do the ‘oh crap’ faces.

The gang opt to take shelter in an empty house. But if you thought that the window easily opening and fresh food being in the fridge was suspicious, you’re right. The house is occupied by the eccentric Lloyd. He knows who they all are, and he’s quite the fan. He shows them the news report where Mr Pyatt is trying to portray Billie Jean as a vandal who attacked him. Other reports claim that the teens have held up several stores and robbed them. But the movie takes a quick sidetrack to show us that Lloyd has a slide that goes from his window to the pool outside!

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Good thing I didn’t see this movie until I was twenty – or else you can bet my parents would have endured years’ worth of nagging. While the others frolic in the pool, Billie Jean gets inspired by a film version of Joan of Arc on the TV. Realising the similarities – wrongfully accused by her enemies, admired by others – she gets a burst of inspiration. As Lloyd knows how to make video tapes – and as many copies as she needs – she decides that she’ll record a message telling her side of the story. But she has to do something else first. We see her standing in front of the mirror with a pair of scissors.

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Here we have the famous Billie Jean haircut. Helen Slater did indeed get the chop for the role. No, she did not do it herself; a hairdresser did it. But this is fiction-land, where you can cut your own hair with nothing but one mirror and any pair of scissors – and it’ll still turn out just as fashionable as you like. Funnily enough, Billie Jean is doing this to evoke Joan of Arc – who cut her hair short to be considered ‘one of the boys’. But historically, Joan actually gave herself a bob; it’s a feminine style these days but it was associated with pageboys back then. The popularity of bobbed haircuts in the 1920s was because they were seen as masculine. But we’re getting off track. Billie Jean records her message and prepares to go on the road again. Lloyd talks them into taking him too, pretending he’s a hostage – to give the cops a reason to bargain with Billie Jean.

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Next day, a child takes a copy of Billie Jean’s tape to the police. I don’t recall the movie explaining who this kid is or how the tape got delivered, but another copy has been sent to the news crews. The tape is on the TV – Billie Jean telling her side of the story. She calls Mr Pyatt a liar and demands the $608 he owes her. She also drops the line “fair is fair” three times; I smell a catch phrase…

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The news of Lloyd being a hostage comes in too, as does the fact that his father is a DA. Billie Jean just ‘kidnapped’ a District Attorney’s son. But Lt Ringwald looks at the residue at the house, and sees that it looks more like a party than a kidnapping. Couple that with shoplifting reports from the toy store, and Ringwald is now assuming that Binx’s gun might be a toy. Cut to Lloyd attempting to record a hostage video but can’t stop laughing.

The Billie Jean merchandise is booming – with Mr Pyatt bringing in a ten-foot statue outside his shop. He’s selling t-shirts, badges, posters, pictures, calendars etc. A group of children approach Billie Jean and Putter in the car and lead her to a house. Inside is a young boy called Kenny, who’s being beaten by his father. Daddy dearest takes a look outside at the army of kids and teenagers gathered on his lawn, and realises who Billie Jean is. Needless to say, Kenny joins the mob. On an unrelated note, doesn’t his father have a striking resemblance to Nicolas Cage?

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After telling the swarm of fans not to believe some of the more outrageous stories about her, a pair of rednecks spot Billie Jean and shoot at her! You got that right; a car chase ensues. I suppose every cult movie needs a good car chase. But forget about that pick-up truck they left overturned on the freeway – because Putter’s bleeding! Well she doesn’t seem to have been shot, so it’s…oh…

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Funnily enough Yeardley Smith was twenty at the time. She spent most of this part of her career playing girls who were younger than herself, even having her breasts strapped down with an Ace bandage. She also frequently gets people coming up to her and quoting the famous line “when can I get a diaphragm?”

Billie Jean and Lloyd share a ‘glad to be alive’ kiss, before the former realises that she can’t keep letting her friends get in danger because of her. Cut to the police arriving where the car is. Putter and Ophelia are still asleep in the backseat, but the other three are gone. We next see the remaining three at a country club, where Lloyd suggests stealing a car. But they are recognised by police and have to scatter. Every good cult film needs a foot chase scene as well – especially when it’s set to a catchy 80s tune. Billie Jean gets saved by another girl driving by. The fact that she’s got the same haircut suggests she’s a fan. And at the station, four girls have been brought in claiming to be Billie Jean.

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None of them is really her, and Putter’s mother also comes into the station. Lest you forget that Putter was perfectly happy to run away from home, her mother reminds us of that. Putter grabs some nearby scissors possibly to defend herself – but then she just cuts off her own hair. Billie Jean meanwhile gets by hitchhiking with her various fans – most of whom have adopted her iconic hairdo. The sequence gets Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” playing over it. What makes this amusing is that the song became a bigger hit than the movie it was recorded for at the time – and now these days it’s back to being associated with the movie again.

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“You might say ‘it’s only *fair”‘”

Billie Jean even briefly takes refuge in an underground club made up of her fans, before she ultimately finds Binx and Lloyd back at the golf course. She and Lloyd declare their love, despite having shared screen time for just twenty minutes. I have to say that, as enjoyable as this film is, I’m not much of a fan of the romance between Billie Jean and Lloyd. Meanwhile, Lt Ringwald finds golf balls in the trunk of Ophelia’s car, and guesses where they’ve been hiding. He goes to the course and calls out that they need to end this now. Later in the day, Billie Jean calls the station and agrees to meet them again.

There’s now a rally at the beach with thousands of fans turning up – including Ophelia and Putter. The latter is now sporting the Billie Jean haircut. Unlike Helen Slater, Yeardley Smith didn’t want to cut her hair and instead settled on a wig. The popped up collar she’s wearing helps conceal that her ponytail is tucked in the back. Lloyd’s father has called in extra security – including a SWAT team. Binx’s scooter is brought in, now fully restored. Billie Jean appears to be leading Lloyd in, but Hubie Pyatt has guessed that something is up. He realises that it’s Binx wearing a dress. Billie Jean meanwhile is disguised with a wig in the crowd. One of the cops gets trigger happy and shoots Binx!

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Binx is taken away in an ambulance and a riot is averted. But Billie Jean spots Mr Pyatt selling all the merchandise, and reveals herself. She demands to know who paid for the scooter’s repairs. Lloyd’s father reveals that he was the one who did. Mr Pyatt still offers the money. But Billie Jean is so disgusted that she outs Mr Pyatt – and what he tried to do to her. She knees him in the groin – to which even Hubie grins at – and tells him to go and buy someone else. The merchandise catches fire. The statue even burns up as Pat Benatar’s voice greets our ears again.

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The surrounding teens, now knowing the truth about what happened to Billie Jean, throw all of their merchandise on the flames. We’re next shown Vermont, sometime later. Billie Jean and Binx, now with his arm in a sling, have taken a vacation there at last. Roll credits.

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So the film is beloved by many people who just happened to watch it whenever it appeared on TV. Enough people that bugged the powers that be to give it a DVD release, which was finally granted in 2011. It’s a pretty fun 80s teen movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. On a deeper level, there is something about the movie that’s more relevant today than when it was released. The movie combats the obsession with celebrity culture, and what makes one a celebrity. Billie Jean gets admirers purely because she’s on the news. She has a whole stream of merchandise for what reason exactly? She doesn’t act, sing, play sports or do anything like that. She’s just a girl who got in trouble. She’s sort of a proto-Harry Potter – in that she gets fame for really weird reasons. But the film opts for a more positive interpretation rather than just going for complete satire – since Billie Jean’s ‘fans’ are furious and burn all their merchandise when they learn the truth about how she was exploited. So it is actually quite shocking that this 80s B-movie manages to be incredibly relevant in the 21st century. On the DVD commentary, Helen Slater jokes that she thought this film would make her a star. Well she got a half and half situation there. Although she went on to have a respectable career in both films and television, she expresses surprise that this film is so remembered. When recording commentary, she couldn’t even remember how it ended. Likewise, Yeardley Smith is one of the highest paid voice actresses working today – and yet she has just as many fans asking her about Putter as Lisa Simpson.

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I guess fair is fair and it’s time to grade.

*Story? I like it. A story examining the very nature of celebrity obsession mixed with a fun runaway road plot. A

*Characters? Billie Jean is a great lead. The fact that she desperately tries to remain law abiding even when she’s on the run gets a plus for me. Binx is a really fun character too, as is Putter. I like that the film chose to make the police competent and a good guy too. Lloyd however was completely unnecessary. B

*Performances? Helen Slater really should have been a leading lady. She had the bad luck that this and Supergirl flopped. Besides the silly Texas accent, she delivers a very strong performance – and she has great chemistry with Christian Slater. Yeardley Smith was lots of fun too. B+

*Visuals? The sunny Corpus Christi location gave us some pleasing scenes. Nothing major of course but still pleasant to look at. B

*Special Effects? They were kept to a minimum, but the car chase and pyrotechnics at the end were pretty good for a low budget 80s movie. C+

*Anything Else? Some great music really sets the scene. A

We move from cult movies to Ancient Greece, with the 2004 epic Troy up next.

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