The Legend of Billie Jean was a flop in the summer of 1985. It was critically savaged and only earned around $3 million (peanuts!) at the box office before being sent to cable purgatory. Even the soundtrack, designed to draw in the MTV generation, tanked. Pat Benatar, who sang the killer theme song, “Invincible,” has disowned the movie.
The movie wasn’t in theaters long enough for me to see it on the big screen, but in the summer of 1986 I saw it for the first time in a hotel room in Savannah. And, oddly, every time I went on vacation with my family, the movie was playing. We would turn on the TV in our cheap hotel room and there was Helen Slater as the eponymous heroine fighting for white trash truth, justice, and the American way.
My father – who never paid attention to such things – remarked that it was “weird” that The Legend of Billie Jean seemed to be following us. From Mississippi to Virginia and beyond, Billie Jean Davy was working her “fair is fair” mojo into our very souls.
Watching TLoBJ today, it’s easy to see how this flop became a cult favorite on cable. With its impoverished Corpus Christi trailer park denizens, bullying, misogyny, attempted rape, child abuse, subversion of authority, and thematic link to Joan of Arc, TLoBJ wasn’t a happy ‘80s teen lark. It was anti-Brat Pack; darker than anything John Hughes would ever attempt although it’s cut from the same misunderstood youth cloth.
The story is pretty simple: Binx (played by Christian Slater in his first major role) has his beloved motor scooter stolen and trashed by the town bullies, lead by Hubie Pyatt. Binx and Billie Jean go to the police, but Detective Ringwald (a classy Peter Coyote) dismisses their story as just kids being kids.
Billie Jean decides to confront Hubie’s sleazy father, who runs a souvenir shop on the beach, and demands $608 to pay to fix the scooter. Instead, Mr. Pyatt says he’ll pay for the scooter in $50 increments every time Billie Jean has sex with him (“pay as you go, earn as you learn”) and when she refuses, he tries to rape her. Binx winds up shooting Mr. Pyatt in the arm, and the “Billie Jean Gang” (friends Putter and Ophelia are along for the ride to spice up their lives) are soon outlaws. They become instant celebrities and top the most wanted list as the media spins their exploits wildly.
A film geek, Lloyd, hides the gang at his house and shows Billie Jean the classic Otto Preminger film Saint Joan starring Jean Seberg. Billie Jean is mesmerized by the story and watches wide-eyed as Joan is burned at the stake for heresy.
When Billie Jean shears off her long flowing hair and dons the skin-tight jumpsuit, she transforms herself into a modern day Joan. Lloyd films her demands for the $608 and sends the videotape to every news channel in Texas, thus making Billie Jean a legend.
When Billie Jean & Co. arrive for a fateful meeting on the beach, where Detective Ringwald has promised that a restored Scooter will be waiting along with an apology from Mr. Pyatt, they find a phalanx of media, a whipped up crowd of supporters, and sharpshooters.
That’s a whole lotta lotta for what was billed as a “teen movie.” What makes the film more resonant now is how it pre-figured the media siege and spin long before the age of the Internet, 24 news cycle, and merchandising (Billie Jean’s likeness is emblazoned on everything from t-shirts to Frisbees). TLoBJ was also unafraid to present its good guys as anti-heroes. Billie Jean and Co. were no saints – they wound up having to steal, elude police, and Binx even threatens Detective Ringwald with a realistic toy gun.
The climatic scene at the beach, where the crowd equally wants to see Billie Jean triumph and to be gunned down, is over-the-top but also chilling. Along with the allusions to Saint Joan and Bonnie and Clyde, there’s also a bit of Patty Hearst thrown in for good measure as Billie Jean becomes an “urban guerilla” forced to rebel to survive. Like Hearst, Billie Jean makes the “mistake” of living instead of dying.
In the end, a giant effigy of Billie Jean erected on the beach by Mr. Pyatt is set aflame, harkening back to Joan’s fiery demise. TLoBJ has moments of silliness, Helen Slater has a propensity to under-emote when a scene needs a bit more, but this movie definitely deserved to be a hit.
Sadly, every time I was feeling persecuted by my parents for not being able to stay out late, get out of chores, or borrow money, the “fair is fair” line never worked. My dad said when I got my face on a Frisbee to let him know and we’d negotiate. Bummer.
Collin Kelley is an award-winning poet and novelist. His latest book, the mystery Remain In Light, is out now in eBook format and will be available in print in January. http://www.collinkelley.com