The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)
Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal
Directed by Matthew Robbins
On paper, the concept for The Legend of Billie Jean sounds fantastic, yet what ended up on the screen was a tonal mess and thematically murky. It’s a shame because the story being told was relevant in 1985 and continues to be timely. The more you unpack the picture, the more frustratingly confounding it becomes, allowing what should be direct and straightforward to become bogged down by side characters and subplots. What this could have been was a superhero origin story, but instead, we get a half-assed “girl power” movie that doesn’t do anything meaningful with the material.
Billie Jean Davy (Helen Slater) lives in a Corpus Christi, Texas trailer park, and spends the summer hanging out with her little brother, Binx (Christian Slater, no relation). They get picked on Hubie, a young man whose father a local store, and he eventually steals Binx’s motorscooter. The authorities fail to provide any help, so Billie Jean takes her grievance up with Mr. Hyatt, Hubie’s father. He coerces her upstairs with the promise of monetary compensation for the scooter but then attempts to rape Billie Jean. Binx and their friends Ophelia & Putter show up to help her, but in the ruckus, Mr. Hyatt is shot in the shoulder. Fearing arrest, the quartet goes on the run, becoming folk heroes to other teenagers as the media covers their story. Billie Jean reinvents her look and begins to develop a quasi-ideology as she seeks to have her voice heard.
If the story had kept a focus on Billie Jean and her developing ideas about marginalized voices, whether that be women, teenagers, and/or the working poor, it could have been great. But things get complicated with a pointless subplot of a wealthy teen (whose dad happens to be the district attorney) allowing Billie Jean’s crew to take him hostage so he can see if his daddy really loves him. There’s a scene where Billie Jean rescues a young boy from being physically abused by his father. This is followed immediately by a comedic (?) scene where they get shot at by a man out for the reward money.
If I remember correctly, this is also the sequence where Putter (Yeardley Smith) thinks she’s been shot, but she’s just gotten her first period. Billie Jean acts like this is the most fantastic thing ever, which makes you think the movie is about female empowerment, maybe? But it doesn’t really explore that idea wholeheartedly. The attempted rape is not the thing Billie Jean keeps harping on when given a chance to voice her protest. She keeps going back to wanting the money for her brother’s scooter. That is what flabbergasted me the most, it felt like the script was burying the lede, the transgression that would give clear motivation. It ties back into the moment we see her face becoming a hero for the weak by helping the abused boy. But it’s just a thing that happens, and then the script moves on.
If it wasn’t for Helen Slater, this movie would be 1980s shlock. While Supergirl is a failure to that character, Slater brings gravitas to the role, likely more than the production deserved. She does the same as Billie Jean. For as ridiculous as the supporting characters and plot feel, there is a noble grounding in Slater’s performance. When she debuts her new Joan of Arc-inspired look halfway through the movie, it works. That pivotal moment she steps across the line and comes to the aid of the vulnerable feels heroic. I think she was perfectly cast as Supergirl because she stands toe-to-toe with Christopher Reeve in that virtuous weight.
While The Legend of Billie Jean touches on so many ideas and themes, it never allows a single one to develop and articulate to a point that they mean anything. This is such a disappointingly flawed movie, and I suspect between this picture, and the box office failure of Supergirl, Helen Slater’s path to be a film lead was over. It’s a shame because I think she had great potential to be a real movie star.