[Editor's Note: This is the latest entry in our annual “Summer of…” series, copresented by Aaron Aradillas of Blog Talk Radio's Back By Midnight and Jamey DuVall and Jerry Dennis of Blog Talk Radio's Movie Geeks United!.]
It's an age-old story: boy meets girl; boy sleazes on girl, then steals girl's brother's scooter and wrecks it; girl's brother reclaims the scooter and gets beaten up in the process; girl confronts boy with repair bill, which he refuses to pay; boy's father will pay, but only if girl lets him have sex with her, repeatedly; girl's brother accidentally shoots boy's father in the arm; girl, brother, and their friends go into hiding at an abandoned miniature-golf palace while Peter Coyote makes bewildered faces. You know…that age-old story.
Digging further into The Legend of Billie Jean raises many more questions than it answers, because as contrived and frail as the main “plot” sounds, it's got nothing on the various B plots. Everyone remembers that Billie Jean chops her long blonde hair off à la Joan of Arc—a tortured parallel the film refuses to drop—and becomes a folk hero. Nobody remembers the rest, but along the way, the eponymous Billie Jean (Helen Slater) and her scooter-crossed brother, Binx (Christian Slater, in his film debut), acquire a hostage in Lloyd (Keith Gordon), a bored rich boy who's eager to test his district-attorney father's love by not only letting the Billie Jean Kids kidnap him but in fact suggesting it himself—this, after they've broken into his house and eaten all the food in the fridge and Billie Jean has hit him in the nuts with a guitar.
Later, Billie Jean rescues a small boy from his physically abusive father, a scene that is played for laughs; gets shot at by a hillbilly who wants the reward money offered for Lloyd's safe return; celebrates her friend Putter's (Yeardley Smith, a.k.a. Lisa Simpson) first menstrual period; and tries to exchange the “hostage” for the fixed-up scooter, except it isn't Billie Jean making the exchange. It's Binx, wearing a dress and make-up. Don't ask. …No, really: don't. I don't know.
Did I mention that Dean Stockwell plays Lloyd's father? There's just a lot going on.
Twenty-five years ago, I accepted all of that without question. The idea that these kids would hit the road instead of just explaining what happened to a trusted adult made perfect sense to me at the time—as did the adoption of Lloyd into their gang (he had a slide connecting his dad's study and the swimming pool, after all!). Watching it again in 2010, I realize that I don't know what the hell is going on after all. Join me and Monkey See's Linda Holmes as we try to make heads or tails of the plot, the costume design, and the Corpus Christi PD. Fair is fair!
Sarah D. Bunting: The Legend of Billie Jean is one of those movies HBO had the rights to back in the day that I watched probably 30 times as a result…but I don't think I've seen it since 1987.
Linda Holmes: Yes. I was thinking this morning that it's the least impressive movie I've ever seen many, many times.
Sarah: I didn't know what to expect, re-watching it, and it isn't all that bad, but I kept asking myself, what are we doing here? Why was this movie made? …Although it fits nicely into that subgenre of '80s movies about have-not outlaws bucking the system (or whatever)—Wisdom, Turk 182!, there must be others.
Linda: It's very interesting in its self-seriousness. They're not trying to be Adventures in Babysitting. It's supposed to be really a heavy tale about the media and…cutting your hair? There's a lot of tension between the absurdity of the actual story and the morality tale.
Sarah: Some of that seriousness doesn't quite get dealt with, either.
Linda: Yeah, the tacked-on ski-lodge ending is not really wrapping up everything that needs wrapping up.
Sarah: [The scooter-trasher's skeezy father] Mr. Pyatt's most grave transgression, in my view, is that he was fixing to rape Billie Jean when the others came into the store after her. But the movie just forgets about that for an hour, and fixates on the money Billie Jean and Binx are owed for the scooter.
Linda: Yes. I think the rape is used to negate the accidental shooting, but gets a little brushed aside as she pursues the money.
Sarah: If the script had folded that incident into her decision to butch it up, it might have made more sense, trite though that would have been. And on a side note, and I speak from some experience here…you just aren't going to get that many girls to cut their hair that short, I don't care if you actually are Joan of Arc.
Linda: Yes. The Billie Jeanettes are not a very convincing element of the story. But her brother did shoot the guy.
Sarah: Well, Hubie [the scooter-wrecker] told Binx the gun wasn't loaded.
Linda: “Binx.” I'm just stepping back and marveling.
Sarah: This is another problem: the names of the characters.
Sarah: Billie Jean, Binx, and their friends Ophelia and Putter.
Linda: Don't forget her boyfriend Lloyd. And seriously, where are they from? And why does Binx have no accent, and Billie Jean sounds like she's in Gone With The Wind? And Lisa Simpson sounds like Lisa Simpson.
Sarah: Chicken-fried Lisa Simpson.
Linda: Chicken-fried Lisa Simpson Gets Her Period. That should be the title.
Sarah: And when she does, they act like she got shot. “You'd better lie down in the back of the car.” She's not giving birth, guys.
Linda: You know, I noticed that, too. “You take it easy. You lie down. You go home.” Not very Joan-like, the intense fear of menstruating women.
Sarah: The grandiosity of the Joan of Arc parallel is the part I can't get past. Watching it again, I could remember what I liked about the movie—the whole plan in the mall with the GI Joe walkies and the marbles, I remember thinking that was really clever. But the papier-mâché Billie Jean toppling into the flames…come on. What exactly is she crusading against? General unfairness?
Linda: Yes. The kids-on-the-run business, supported by a reasonable argument that they would never be believed, that was okay, as a middle-school diversion.
Sarah: Exactly. But even that, I felt it was approached the wrong way.
Linda: When it becomes some sort of a parable, not just about Joan of Arc, but about the media and public madness, that was where I jumped off the train. Not to mention the fact that Peter Coyote's character knew where it was at the whole time.
Sarah: And Billie Jean uses the media herself! Okay, it was Lloyd's idea, but don't deliver a videotape (and by the way, it was a VHS tape and Lloyd's camera was a Beta…just saying) and then get annoyed at the gap between your reality and your image. And the police won't believe her or Binx because they're poor, not because they're kids. She says it herself: “We live in the trailer park.”
Linda: Right. I find it odd to be like, “I'd respect it more if it were more of a broad commentary about social class,” but there you go.
Sarah: In the second place, this class-based antipathy between characters is an aspect of '80s movies that, even at the time, I thought was overblown.
Linda: Hey, Andie couldn't date Blane because of the side of the tracks she lived on, either.
Sarah: And Amanda Jones had her class struggle in Some Kind of Wonderful…the list is endless. I'm sure it's tied to Reagan-era anxiety about the divide between the “richies” and the nots getting wider, but even at the time, I felt like that was a problem teenagers had primarily in the movies.
Linda: Well, Mr. Pyatt owned a store, but it wasn't like he was swimming in gold coins, either.
Sarah: That, and the utter lack of subtlety in the bullying. I'm a product of girls' school, where it's much more covert, but still.
Linda: Oh, and the bullying.
Sarah: It's like the villains in One Crazy Summer—don't these people have anything better to do?
Linda: You mean “Hubie”?
Sarah: You know, he popped up shortly thereafter as Wolfman in Top Gun.
Linda: I actually thought about Top Gun at one point while watching Billie Jean. There was some chase with Kenny-Loggins-ish music playing, and I thought, “This is the '80s, right here. This, and Top Gun.”
Sarah: As you said, it's not an undiverting place to start from; the whole “fair is fair,” “we're not coming back until you admit that you're wrong and pay us back” thing is something that would really appeal to a kid's innate need for justice. Tying it to Jeanne d'Arc? Mistake. Having Billie Jean save a child from a beating, and then play it for laughs at the end of the scene? Even bigger mistake.
Linda: Yeah. At the end, when they're all throwing their swag on the fire like it's a book-burning, just so we can see the “Billie Jean is being BUUUUURNED!” imagery? That's just flat-out goofy. And I have never, ever understood why the abused child is in the story. Speaking of things that aren't actually cleaned up in the script.
Sarah: Well, he goes to stay with his grandma, but still. It's Billie Jean's first and last act of heroism, unless you count the torching of Pyatt's Billie-Jean-swag sales booth. And I was watching the fire and thinking, “But…they paid for that stuff. They're collector's items now.”
Linda: It's almost like they have to give her heroism some heft, so she's not just a sideshow. Which…she is.
Sarah: Which is fine!
Linda: Well, once they've paid for the swag, what good does it do to burn it? He's already got the money!
Sarah: If you're going to have her make some statement on commercializing her without her consent, then—make that statement. Or boiling her life down to a slogan—a perfectly good idea that the script could have explored. I for one was irritated that she didn't demand Pyatt's entire gross of all the shit he sold, plus a fine for using her image without her permission.
Linda: Can I also just mention the hambone acting from young Christian Slater, who hadn't quite decided to be Nicholson quite yet?
Sarah: I didn't think he was terrible. Whoever mixed the fake blood after he got beat up: terrible. Blood is not pink, friends.
Linda: I didn't think he was terrible, but there's a certain…I don't know. I am never persuaded by his entire scooter dilemma, entirely.
Sarah: If they're that poor and it costs that much to fix, how'd he get the scooter in the first place? He doesn't appear to have a job…oh, wait, they mentioned that he bought it with the settlement money after their dad died. So it's the Dad Memorial Scooter, I guess. With that said, the decision to kidnap the scooter back from Hubie, like, six hours after the inciting incident played oddly.
Linda: I wasn't sure I understood why Hubie hated him so much in the first place. Binx doesn't really play like “victim nerd.”
Sarah: No. “Mosquito-ish pest,” maybe.
Linda: Well, and maybe because Hubie couldn't get anywhere with Billie Jean? I agree that the re-kidnap was odd, and that it was hard to believe he got away with the scooter despite being soundly beaten.
Sarah: And then he went straight to bed with pink blood all over his face. Not even a quick trip to the sink? Really?
Linda: I do remember that from the first time I saw it, I found Billie Jean's confrontation with Mr. Pyatt up in the upstairs of the store to be so, so creepy.
Sarah: I'd forgotten how she got out of it—or if she got out of it. I actually said out loud, “Gross.” And what does he think he's doing, anyway? Didn't Hubie just run out for a sandwich? Couldn't a customer walk in? Or is overhearing a rape in progress just par for the course at Pyatt's Souvenir 'n' Sexual Assault Shoppe?
Linda: Or couldn't she…I don't know, TELL HER MOM? I mean, once Binx shoots him, then I understand they're over a barrel, but yes, until that happens, I don't understand how he's so sure she won't tell the police. All he's offering her is money she already doesn't have.
Sarah: It's also worth noting that Pyatt is, like, the one male character she doesn't kick in the slats. I'm not trying to blame the victim, but God knows she's quick enough with the knee on Hubie and Lloyd. Actually, she racks Lloyd with the neck of a guitar, and that's a whole other conversation. I know you're lonely, rich boy, but she's trespassing and she just ruptured your testis.
Linda: Yeah, as I said, once the shooting happens, then I buy the sort of “now it's completely out of hand and you'll never prove what happened” angle. Before that? They're just asking for money. Why is Mr. Pyatt going to think she'll keep coming back to be sexually assaulted for money?
Sarah: I suspect it was almost entirely so he could make that sleazy “layaway plan” pun.
Linda: Good point. And yes, Lloyd really is kind of a punching bag.
Sarah: Lloyd and his daddy issues. And his asthma, like, of course that character has an inhaler.
Linda: Yes, another situation where they packed too much in the movie to ever deal with. The whole “self-kidnap because Dad doesn't love you” stunt…nothing ever really comes of that in the end. Or the asthma.
Sarah: There's that whole chase scene through the golf course, too, where I kept thinking, does his asthma come back to bite them at this point? But then they cut away from him and we don't find out.
Linda: Well, you have to think…why does he have asthma? Why is that in the movie? Along with the dad stuff, the media stuff, Peter Coyote's feelings…TOO MUCH.
Sarah: There's a quotation from Jonathan Bernstein's brilliant book, Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies—and I'm damned if I can find the line, of course—in which he says, more or less, that absentee/single parents are the McGuffin that drives half these plots, and this movie is a great example.
Linda: I like your point about the outlaw angle, too.
Sarah: Let me see what Bernstein has to say about this movie specifically…
“What the hell was The Legend of Billie Jean supposed to be? Was it a modern Joan of Arc story or a parody of how a modern Joan of Arc would be embraced and devoured by the media? Was it a clarion call conceived to shake up apathetic eighties youth? Or was it an attempt to reverse the impression left by Supergirl that Helen Slater was a wimp? In all aspects, and especially the latter, it failed. But it was an engrossing failure.”
That brings up an interesting point: I wonder if it would have worked better, even with the scattershot script, with someone else in the lead. Helen Slater just looks itchy most of the time.
Linda: I think it's partly that she's so uncomfortable in the look and the accent. She just looks and sounds like such an actress.
Sarah: That's part of it. Even the way she has the character walk is very studied. But then whenever she's “angry,” she just shouts the lines telegram-style with no modulation.
Linda: I also just didn't think they nailed it as far as what an authentic rebellious style would look like. All of a sudden, not only the short hair, but the vest we've never seen and the one dangly earring?
Sarah: The vest cut down to Jesus? Here's a tip for all you aspiring lady folk heroes: when you go on the lam, don't forget a bra.
Linda: Right. It's not really a practical road look.
Sarah: Nor does the movie discuss the fact that 1) the most logical reason for her to cut her hair is to avoid recognition, which, 2) unless she already knows every other teen girl in Corpus Christi is going to cut her hair the same way, won't work anyway, because a girl with a buzz cut is more noticeable than a girl with long straight hair. And that doesn't even get into why they never leave town. Ophelia (Martha Gehman, who drives the getaway station wagon) says it's because they don't have enough gas, but they're driving ALL AROUND CORPUS CHRISTI, like, if you're going to burn the gas anyway, LEAVE THE FRICKIN' STATE. Also, gas was $1.09 a gallon. Cry me a river, Oph.
Linda: How about the guy who decides he's going to shoot at them? Just on his own?
Sarah: I understood why he shot at them—he wanted the reward—but then his big oafy 4x4 turns over in that ditch like 28 times, and we never find out if he got his and his girlfriend's asses killed. At least on The A-Team they showed the guys crawling out of the wreckage.
Linda: That part did surprise me. But I still think the idea that he would just shoot at them is sort of…at that distance? Yeah, you're going for the tires, but do you want the hassle if you happen to shoot them? Or somebody else?
Sarah: I thought that too, at first, and then I remembered: Texas. Although I'm probably giving the movie too much credit.
Linda: I still think the abused kid is the weirdest part.
Sarah: If the kid is AUDIBLY being beaten, why don't these neighborhood kids who approach Billie Jean for help just call the cops? Billie Jean isn't famous for rescuing people; she's famous for wanting her money. Unless the dad owes her $608, why not just call the law? Oh, that's right: the Rangers are all occupied setting up roadblocks to stop this one girl. Who didn't even shoot anyone her own self.
Linda: I'm not sure why they thought it was going to go well when they brought the hostage to the crowded carnival at gunpoint anyway.
Sarah: With Binx wearing a dress. What kind of damn-fool sharpshooters don't use a scope and can't see that that's not her?
Linda: Yeah, that part didn't make a lot of sense to me either. What was the function of the dress again?
Sarah: To fool them into thinking Binx was Billie Jean, who was actually lurking in the crowd in her curly brown wig. Do you…want to know what the function of THAT was? Because I don't know.
Linda: That's my whole thing. Why did she need to be in the crowd with the Amy Irving wig?
Sarah: She pulled the tarp off the scooter, to show him it was legit, but anyone could have done that. And why did Binx have to have six pounds of mascara on? He was wearing sunglasses, and they're not going to get that close. I don't know what the kids thought was going to happen at this hostage exchange, honestly.
Linda: Well, and really, the fact that the scooter is there doesn't mean they're not just going to pull a double-cross and arrest you.
Sarah: Or shoot you.
Linda: Right! I daresay, the logic of this movie falls apart at the end.
Sarah: Then again, the police let Hubie run right past the cordon to start capering around all “IT'S A BOY IN A DRESS,” so the idea that they could get away from the cops in this instance is not all that far-fetched. And then Binx gets shot, there's a big fire, and they're just…in Vermont.
Linda: Yes, what is WITH that ski-lodge ending? WHAT? Other than seeing that Binx lived.
Sarah: And that he's eyeing a snowmobile, the northern version of a scooter. Wah wahhhhh. Credits!
Linda: It is a very, very weird ending. Where's Lloyd? What happened with Putter's period? I MUST KNOW.
Sarah: Did Ophelia's dad get really mad about the car? Did any Pyatt get arrested for anything?
Linda: I MUST KNOW!
Sarah: Did anyone CALL THE FUCKING FIRE DEPARTMENT? I understand you're going for the imagery, but there was a lot of hay around that carny stand.
Linda: There sure was.
Sarah: Pyatt's yelling repeatedly that someone needs to get some water, but no, everyone just lines up to throw their Billie Jean novelty visors solemnly onto the pyre one by one, while looking thoughtful. 9-1-1, YOU DOLTS!
Linda: And then they all just let it buuuuuuurn! Including the cop.
Sarah: I KNOW! Get on the radio, Coyote, good grief. Even if it's not in the script, just ad-lib it. It's not like he hasn't played this role many times before.
Linda: That is true. He is playing the Peter Coyote part.
Sarah: He was good, actually, given that his character is one of the more inept detectives in film.
Linda: What does he do, seriously? What does he do except ineptly give chase?
Sarah: And glower at Hubie?
Linda: Yeah, he did do that.
Linda: And let the stand burn down.
Sarah: And wore a gold chain. What was that about? I still have so many questions.
Sarah D. Bunting is the head rodeo clown at TomatoNation.com.
Linda Holmes writes and edits NPR's pop-culture and entertainment blog, Monkey See. Neither of them knows what became of Lloyd Muldaur.