A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 373 – The Legend of Billie Jean

The Legend of Billie Jean – March 8th, 2011

We were going to watch Planet Terror tonight, since we watched the excruciatingly horrible Death Proof last night, but then today I thought perhaps we should pick something else. What with it being International Women’s Day and all, it seemed like watching something so gratuitous would be a bad plan. So I thought and thought and thought and then came up with this. Because this is a movie that sticks out in my mind as being about women resolutely not being taken advantage of, despite the best attempts of the men around them.

The plot follows Billie Jean and her brother, Binx, two kids from the trailer park in Corpus Christi, Texas, and how Billie Jean becomes a legendary figure among the youth of the area (and it’s implied the rest of the country followed suit). It’s an outrageous plot in many ways, but sadly believable in others, but then, that’s a legend for you. It’s in the title, after all. Binx has this scooter, you see, and he loves it. But some bullies steal it and trash it and then beat Binx up when he tries to get it back. Billie Jean goes to the ring-leader’s father, Mr. Pyatt, and presents him with a bill for the damages to the bike and he tries to force her to give him sexual favors in return for the money. Binx shoots him by accident (Pyatt tells him the gun isn’t loaded) and soon the two siblings are on the run along with their friends, Ophelia (who has a car) and Putter. The case gets publicized and starts to build in the media and by the end of the movie there are underground dens of young women cutting all their hair off like Billie Jean did and rallying around her. They believe in her and in what she stands for. She’s approached to help other kids. She’s a symbol for something she never intended and meanwhile Mr. Pyatt is profiting off her notoriety, selling t-shirts, posters and other crap with her name and face on it all, all the while claiming he never did anything wrong and she’s a menace to society.

Of course, the detective handling the case, Detective Ringwald, figures it out as soon as he sees Billie Jean’s picture and hears whose father it was who got shot. He knows it didn’t go down like Pyatt claims and he knows Billie Jean didn’t start it. And he says it right at the start: “I blew this one.” Because before she went to Mr. Pyatt, Billie Jean went to the police. The way she thought she was supposed to. And Ringwald sent her away, telling her it was probably a prank. The boys were probably just trying to get her attention. The bike would be back in no time, no big deal. And to his credit, while Ringwald did indeed blow it at the start, he’s firmly on Billie Jean’s side through the rest of the movie. He follows all the procedures he needs to follow as she’s on the run and apparently has a hostage (a young man named Lloyd who joined them voluntarily, helped them make tapes to send to the media and whose father is running for Attorney General), but he tries his best to keep things from escalating. To find out what really happened. To do what’s right. And then there’s a super dramatic ending, with the confrontation we’ve all been waiting for, and then suddenly everything’s up in flames and it’s clearly a reference to Saint Joan, which is a little ambitious for an 80s flick like this but I don’t care.

Now, I won’t deny that this movie is cheese. I can’t claim it’s brilliantly written or stunningly filmed. It’s dated and stilted and some of the acting is questionable at best. But it stands out for me as distinctly pro-woman for several reasons. One, while Billie Jean becomes a media celebrity, the attention she gets is for her actions and her words, not her body. The only person focused on her body as a sexual object is Mr. Pyatt, and he’s unquestionably the villain here. Two, young women all over the place are moved by Billie Jean and what she’s done and said. They emulate her not because she’s pretty or sexy or dating someone hot. They do it because she’s strong and speaking up for herself and refusing to be put in the sex object role. And three, how many other actiony movies like this can you think of that celebrate a character getting her first period? I can’t think of any. This isn’t a movie marketed as a “chick flick”. It’s about strong women being awesome and it includes a statement about menarche. It takes a special kind of movie to include that alongside chase scenes and shootouts.

This movie informed my teen years. Back when I was in middle school and high school I was as nocturnal as I could get. I stayed up late and watched movies. And this was one I would catch every so often and I loved it. I loved it passionately. Because it’s not a movie about vengeance. Sure, there’s some vengeance in it, but that’s not the point. The point is what Billie Jean says: “What’s fair is fair.” She just wants the bullies who stole her brother’s bike and trashed it and beat him up to pay for the damage. And she wants to be paid back without having to give sexual favors to the jackass’s father. One would think that wasn’t too much to ask, you know? But it is, and when I was fourteen years old, watching this, I knew in my soul that it was too much to ask for some people in some places. Too many people in too many places. And I wanted to believe that it was possible that someone could stand up like Billie Jean and inspire people all over the place to stand with her. I wanted to believe that people would know it was right that bullying was wrong and coercion was wrong and it could start a movement. I still want to believe it.

What did this movie teach me? That boys who treated you like dirt were scum, regardless of what people said about it meaning they liked you. That it didn’t matter what your social status was, no one was allowed to try and buy or take your body without your consent. That a media blitz gets attention but rolls out of control really fast. That you can act to keep from being taken advantage of, but acting sometimes gets you in trouble too. That while there are jackasses out there and plenty of them, there are also people who aren’t jackasses. That lots of people will pile on a bandwagon without understanding the original purpose. That other people will understand and stand up for a cause. Sure, it’s the bluntest of blunt instruments, but I like the mark it made on me.

March 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Legend of Billie Jean

March 8, 2011

The Legend of Billie Jean

Apparently today is the one hundredth annual international women’s day. As such we’ve decided to put our Grindhouse viewing on hold and watch a movie that is a little more empowering for women. (Not that Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg isn’t empowering, but we wanted something a little more meaningful.

If it were not for our movie-a-day project we might never have purchased this movie. It was one of those hard to find out of print gems that we had always intended to own but which was kind of difficult to locate. But when we started evaluating our collection and looking for holes we decided that it was high time we found a copy and bought it. The fact that the VHS copy we eventually found through E-Bay is a little washed out and has slight tracking problems in a couple places actually kind of helps make the viewing a more authentically eighties experience. Because this movie is so very eighties that it almost hurts, so it seems appropriate that our viewing tonight feels like a flash back to the days of well-loved video cassettes rented from a little hole in the wall.

The story here is inspiring. Deliberately so. It tells of a young girl and her brother unjustly hunted by the law and the movement that she inspires. It’s painted as a larger than life story about how one girl refusing to put up with the misogynistic crap that life throws at her can make it possible for so many others to walk in her footsteps.

It all starts with a bike. Billie Jean’s brother Binx has a motor scooter that he loves. When a local bully steals it, trashes it and beats Binx up Billie Jean goes to the bully’s father to demand restitution. What she gets instead is almost molested by the skeevy bastard and only the fact that her brother and friends show up to see what’s taking so long saves her. Unfortunately in the process Binx accidentally shoots the molester and so he and his sister and a couple of their neighbours end up on the run. They repeatedly try to do the right thing, only to have Mr. Pyatt and his son Hubie drive them back into hiding. There’s a well-meaning police detective named Ringwald who knows just what’s going on, but he seems unable to find a way to a peaceful resolution of matters.

All Billie Jean wants is the money to repair her brother’s scooter. She doesn’t want to be an outlaw. She doesn’t want to be a martyr. She’s just standing up for what is right. “Fair’s fair,” after all. Eventually the four kids hide out in what appears to be an empty mansion, where they find a disaffected young rich kid who happens to have a whole lot of AV equipment. Billie Jean cuts off her hair and records a manifesto which they send to all the news outlets. A whole movement is created with girls chopping off their hair in solidarity. But things escalate once more because Lloyd runs away with the gang and it turns out that his father is the local DA and is running for Attorney General.

What makes this movie great for me is the whole popular movement that Billie Jean starts. I love seeing all these girls with their punk hairdos standing up for what’s right. I love the Pat Benatar soundtrack. I love the fantastic cast they have. Helen Slater makes a great stron female lead and looks damned powerful with her short hair. Christian Slater as her brother binx is fun and hardly seems like he’s doing a Jack Nicholson impression at all. There’s Dean Stockwell as Lloyd’s politically motivated absentee father. And my favorite part of the entire movie is Yeardly Smith as the impressionable young Putter who is tagging along. Yeardly apparently has been cast as a young girl her entire adult life. She was twenty one years old here and plays a just barely pubescent teen. And of course she’s been playing an eight-year-old for more than twenty years now. But Putter’s youthful exuberance and fun non-sequiters steal every scene she’s in.

Watching my wife watch this movie was almost as much fun as watching the movie itself. It is so deeply rooted in her teenaged years. A few years back somebody asked me (at the age of 35 or so) what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I replied “Buckaroo Banzai.” I strongly suspect that my wife wants to grow up to be Billie Jean. (Or Emma Peel.)

March 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment