Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Film Appreciation - We Will Be Invincible

Cody Hamman has a fair amount of Film Appreciation for the 1985 film The Legend of Billie Jean.

As far as I'm concerned, director Matthew Robbins' 1985 film The Legend of Billie Jean is one of the most important films in cinema history, it had such an impact on my childhood. This was one of my first cinematic obsessions - along with several other films I've written about over the years, this was one that I would watch repeatedly with my maternal grandmother while she was babysitting me. But this wasn't just one of those movies where I would wait to catch it on cable or rent it from this video store. We had a tape with Billie Jean on it, recorded off of cable. I could watch this movie any time I wanted to... and I wanted to watch it a lot. I would request that we watch "Billie Jean" (I never said the "The Legend of" part of the title), that tape would go in the VCR, and a very young Cody Hamman would plunge into the world of this film all over again. Again and again.

Written by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (the writing duo behind blog contributor Priscilla's childhood favorite The In Crowd), Billie Jean is the story of a group of mistreated and misunderstood teenagers who become folk heroes while on the run from authorities, accused of a crime they didn't really commit. Helen Slater plays the title character Billie Jean Davy, and the filmmakers made the absolute right choice when they cast her to play someone who instantly achieves legendary icon status, because Slater is captivating from the first moment she appears on the screen, doing her best to endure the sweltering Corpus Christi, Texas heat.

Billie Jean lives in a trailer park with her widowed mother and her younger brother, who is called Binx and is played by Christian Slater (no relation). Binx hates the heat, dreams of getting away to the snowy Vermont countryside, loves his Honda Elite scooter, and is a bit of a pain. But he's not as much of a pain as local douche Hubie Pyatt (Barry Tubb), who bullies Binx mainly because he has an unrequited interest in Billie Jean. Hubie starts all the trouble when he steals Binx's scooter and does $608 worth of damage to it. Hubie's father Mr. Pyatt (Richard Bradford) is a beachside surf shop owner who can easily afford to cover the $608 bill, but rather than just hand over the cash when Billie Jean asks for it, he reveals himself to be a slimy scumbag by offering a deal: he'll give Billie Jean the $608 over several payments, and to earn each of these payments she'll have to have sex with him.

Billie Jean doesn't go for that, Mr. Pyatt gets rough with her, and Binx has located the gun Mr. Pyatt hides in the cash register. That gun accidentally goes off and Mr. Pyatt is shot in the shoulder - which is helpful in selling his story to the police that the Davy siblings came to his store with the intention of robbing him.

Billie Jean and Binx go on the run, accompanied by two of their neighbors from the trailer park: reluctant getaway driver Ophelia (Martha Gehman) and gleeful accomplice Putter (Yeardley Smith), who sees this as a chance to escape from her strict, abusive mother. They're putting their lives at risk by doing this, but the situation is made slightly less dire by the fact that the officer leading the manhunt, Peter Coyote as Lieutenant Ringwald, is quickly able to deduce what happened between Pyatt and Billie Jean and sees that she and her cohorts are actually good kids. So he's less trigger happy than cops in other films like this have been. He's trying to make the kids are brought in without being harmed.

For their part, Billie Jean and her companions are some good-hearted outlaws, and Billie Jean does her best to keep the others from going too far with the criminal acts. They try to break as few laws as possible, and if they do have to steal something to get by they leave behind "IOU" notes. This is part of why they become so popular with people who catch their story on the news. Billie Jean makes it clear that they want only one thing: for Pyatt to fork over that money he owes them. She says this in a videotape message she sends out, and she becomes an inspirational figure to the people who see that she has been wronged. She also establishes her own catch phrase in this video: "Fair is fair!" (And apparently Fair Is Fair was the working title for this film.)

That videotape is sent out with the aid of teenager Lloyd Muldaur (played by Keith Gordon, who was 24 at the time and looked at least that old), who the kids meet when they decide to spend the night in his empty-looking mansion. This interlude at Lloyd's always felt very strange to me when I watched the film as a kid, as there's a shift in the tone and look of the movie when they enter his creepy, dimly lit mansion. Then this guy comes jumping out of the shadows wearing a monster mask. Lloyd is an odd guy, and I wasn't sure about him during my childhood viewings. He's an aspiring filmmaker who thinks he's weirder than he actually is, so I should have been able to relate to him (I didn't realize then that this was like a glimpse into my future!), but he felt out of place to me.

Not only does Lloyd shoot that video for Billie Jean - after he introduces her to the 1957 film Saint Joan and tells her the story of Joan of Arc, which inspires her to give herself a Joan of Arc haircut - but he also volunteers to be a hostage for the group. This draws even more attention to them, since he happens to be the son of a district attorney. During their time together, he becomes a love interest for Billie Jean as well.

The legend of Billie Jean continues to build when the children of a neighborhood come together to ask for her help saving a friend from his abusive father. There's a lot of love and support out there for her... but there are also glory hounds who want to bring her to justice themselves. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2's Caroline Williams appears in a sequence in which she's the passenger in a truck driven by a man who wants to capture the teens. Even though I was watching both TCM2 and Billie Jean regularly at the same time, somehow I didn't put it together when I was a kid that TCM2's "Stretch" was that truck passenger.

The story demands that Billie Jean and Pyatt meet again in the end, because fair is fair. I won't go into details, but I will say that the climax of the film is perfect. The Legend of Billie Jean ends in a very satisfying manner.

I have a great deal of nostalgia for The Legend of Billie Jean, but this still holds up as a very solid, entertaining film even when I remove the nostalgia from the equation. The story is involving, and the actors turn in strong performances - Richard Bradford is especially unforgettable, he does such a great job of making Mr. Pyatt intensely despicable in such an infuriating way. When nostalgia for this film and the '80s in general are in play, Billie Jean stands as a shining example of pure '80s greatness, because this movie is very '80s. Not only is the feel of that decade in its DNA, but it also features an excellent soundtrack of then-modern songs that includes Pat Benatar's "Invincible", Divinyls' "Boys in Town", and Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell". There's even a foot chase inside a shopping mall, the ultimate '80s hangout!

The mall used as the filming location for this sequence was the Sunrise Mall in Corpus Christi, Texas. Like so many others, this mall has reportedly fallen on hard times since its '80s heyday - disappointing, but expected. I really like shopping malls and did a good amount of shopping in them through the '80s and '90s, so it's sad to see so many of them being abandoned. No matter what happens to the Sunrise Mall, it will always live on as part of The Legend of Billie Jean.

Although it was a mainstay during my childhood, my viewings of The Legend of Billie Jean did gradually slow down and eventually came to a stop. When VHS fell out of favor, the film became hard to find, because it took a long time for it to receive a DVD upgrade. It finally did in 2011, with a Blu-ray following in 2014. I purchased that Blu-ray at a Cinema Wasteland convention, so now I finally have one of my favorite movies safely in my collection again.

No comments:

Post a Comment