Originally released July 19, 1985
Written by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (from an uncredited first draft by Walter Bernstein)
Directed by Matthew Robbins
Starring Helen Slater, Christian Slater, and Peter Coyote
My rating: ★★★ stars
Quick-paced tale of teens on the run explores idea of social injustice.
The Legend of Billie Jean is probably best known for its hit theme song, “Invincible,” by Pat Benatar. It grossed a little over $3 million at the box office and didn’t even crack the top 100 films of 1985. Benatar has been known to introduce “Invincible” in concert by announcing, “This song is from the worst movie ever made.” It’s hardly that. Even if Benatar meant her statement to be hyperbolic, she’s still being unfair to the film. It has its weak spots, but it’s watchable, well-acted, and thoughtful, which is a lot more than can be said for most movies.
It tells the story of Corpus Christi, Texas, teen Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater), who seeks compensation after a bunch of bullies beat up her younger brother, Binx (Christian Slater, no relation in real life to Helen), and damage his motor scooter. When she’s turned away by a police detective, Lt. Ringwald (Peter Coyote, E.T., A Walk to Remember), she goes to the souvenir shop of the lead bully’s father, Mr. Pyatt (Richard Bradford), to get money to repair the scooter. Pyatt attempts to rape her, but she escapes and Binx threatens Pyatt with his own gun. Pyatt claims the gun isn’t loaded, leading Binx to pull the trigger, shooting Pyatt, who suffers only a minor shoulder wound.
Billie Jean and Binx go on the run with two of their friends from the same trailer park, Ophelia (Martha Gehman, daughter of Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons) and Putter (Yeardley Smith, best known as the voice of Lisa Simpson). Along the way, they pick up rich kid Lloyd Muldaur (Keith Gordon, Christine, now a noted director), who poses as their hostage.
As the gang’s fame spreads among the media, Billie Jean, as the leader, becomes the poster child—literally, Pyatt makes a killing selling Billie Jean posters, t-shirts, and other souvenirs—for disaffected youth. The muddling of the principles that led to her current situation and Billie Jean’s discomfort with her cult status become the key complications of the latter half of the film.
Meanwhile, Ringwald tries to undo the mess that he unwittingly helped create. He’s aided (and hindered) by Lloyd’s father, the district attorney/wannabe attorney general (Dean Stockwell, Quantam Leap, Compulsion), who has his own agenda in dealing with the situation.
Thematically, The Legend of Billie Jean is monumentally ambitious, particularly for a teen movie. Its focus is on the notion of social injustice, how those who lack social and economic power have no recourse against the powerful. Additionally, it touches on the issues of bullying, rape culture, the distorting power of fame, the corruption of authority, and the exploitation of idolatry. That’s a lot of serious business for a movie that runs just over an hour and a half.
Whether one views the movie as good or bad probably depends on how willing one is to wade into the thematic tangle. Unraveling the thematic threads reveals that the movie does have a lot to say while leaving them tangled with a cursory examination gives the impression of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to say. Part of the issue comes from the fact that the movie is about the muddling of Billie Jean’s principles. If it seems unclear in the end what exactly Billie Jean represents, that’s the point. In the proliferation and commodification of her fame, she becomes a simulacrum, lacking coherent meaning. That’s a heavy point that a lot of viewers might not be willing to credit a teen movie with putting forth.
I would love to read the original draft of the screenplay, which was written by one of the famed blacklist victims of the 1950s Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe, Paris Blues, The Front), who is uncredited on the film. The script went through a number of hands with screen credit going to the team of Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, who wrote a number of bad and forgettable films from the 1980s and 1990s, along with one minor gem, 1988’s The In Crowd. Certainly, on a thematic level, Billie Jean recalls Bernstein’s filmography more than Rosenthal and Konner’s. And I postulate that the team was brought in to lighten up some of Bernstein’s messaging, perhaps accounting for the truncation of the development of some of the ideas.
The film is at its worst when it undercuts its own message. It’s hard to take the film seriously when it presents a tacit criticism of Pyatt’s exploitation of Billie Jean, including one poster with a particularly exploitative image, when the film itself is exploiting Helen Slater’s nubility. In fighting patriarchal oppression, Billie Jean cuts her hair to look like Jean Seberg’s Joan of Arc, but the costume department puts her in a ridiculous cleavage-baring wetsuit that undermines the effect of the haircut.
Effective character development is complemented by performances that are universally good. Helen Slater is strong enough to carry a movie, doing her best in Billie Jean’s moments of uncertainty. As the character is not very articulate, it’s not an easy role to play. (Her accent, however, is atrocious.) Christian Slater, in his film debut, is completely natural, energizing his scenes with his unique charisma. The adult cast is remarkable with Coyote’s rueful and sympathetic Ringwald, Stockwell’s concerned if self-serving Muldaur, and Bradford’s utterly odious Pyatt. Of the actors playing the three main adults, Bradford is the least well known, but every move, every gesture is pitch perfect. Somehow, even the way Pyatt handles money is repulsive.
In the end, the MTV aesthetic—the trendy costuming, the quick editing, the sequences that look like music videos—might be the movie’s worst enemy, undermining the seriousness of the film’s ideas and creating the sense that the film is a mindless mess. It’s a film that benefits from repeat viewings, when more of the film’s thematic ideas and performance nuances are revealed.