The thirtieth anniversary of the theatrical release of “The Legend of Billie Jean” will be coming up soon, with that film having been released back on July 19, 1985. “The Legend of Billie Jean” was no masterpiece though and that anniversary won’t likely be registering on the radar of anyone except for the film’s most-loyal fans. So why bring the film up for analysis? Perhaps more interesting than the film itself was how “The Legend of Billie Jean” served as a microcosm of pop culture in the summer of 1985. It also foreshadowed the sort of media celebrity that would later become a norm in our world.
Before I get into the details regarding that film, it has to be confession time… I’ve had a celebrity crush on Helen Slater that dated back to when I first saw her in “Supergirl,” at some point in the later 1980s. Bear in mind, “Supergirl” was not a great movie. Its plot made absolutely no sense, not as a kid and not upon seeing it as an adult. I’ve seen “Supergirl” perhaps 5-10 times over the past 30 years though, liking weird little sequences in it and feeling that Slater did a great job of embodying the same sort of natural naivety that Christopher Reeve brought to “Superman.” Simply put, she looked and acted like one might expect from Supergirl of that era.
Helen Slater was positioned in the mid-1980s as an up-and-coming leading lady and she never quite took off due to her first two headlining films failing at the box office. She slid into a supporting role in several comedy-dramas in the later 1980s such as “Ruthless People” (1986), “The Secret of My Success” (1987), and “City Slickers” (1991). Students of the 1980s have probably seen all three of those films and all are watchable, entertaining films that were commercial successes. Slater continued to work steadily, mostly in television. She scored some geek press with a role on “Smallville” for a few seasons. In total, Slater had a nice career that most actresses would probably love to have, but she never quite became that darling blockbuster film actress that Hollywood seemed to expect.
“The Legend of Billie Jean” was Slater’s next big leading role after “Supergirl” and it came out in mid-summer 1985, almost exactly one year after “Supergirl” had crashed and burned in the summer of 1984. “The Legend of Billie Jean” didn’t do much better than “Supergirl” financially, although it was a lower budget production.
So what, exactly, was “The Legend of Billie Jean” about? Its plot can’t be quickly summarized.
It all started when Billie Jean (Helen Slater) was out sunbathing at a local swimming hole with her brother (played by the ironically unrelated Christian Slater in an early role). Said brother’s very dated-looking Honda Elite scooter was stolen by some bully types (apparently it was a pretty cool ride in 1985). The scooter was eventually recovered, but $600 for repairs was needed and Billie Jean demanded that amount from the main bully’s small businessman father. The bully’s father initially agreed to pay the amount, but ended up instead trying to rape Billie Jean. He wasn’t successful in the assault and was inadvertently shot in the shoulder by Billie Jean’s friends while they rescued her.
One thing led to another with Billie Jean and her posse of pals becoming fugitive media celebrities while the local law enforcement tried to sort out the entire situation.
Billie Jean and her friends more or less started a small youth revolution in Texas via use of a camcorder and help from the news media. There was the germ of an interesting idea here for a more-relevant film in our current environment of social media/Youtube saturation. Unfortunately, in 1985 some of the ideas in this film about teens creating a media frenzy were about thirty years too early.
A related nugget was how the villain managed to cash in on the Billie Jean media cultural phenomena while waiting to eventually get into trouble with the cops at the end of the film. He financially exploited her likeness, selling merchandise of her to teenage ‘fans’ and you sort of have to appreciate that level of deviousness.
References to Joan of Arc leading a revolution seemed to inspire Billie Jean, but that also created a sense of foreboding that worked quite well. As a viewer, one kept feeling like Billie Jean was playing with metaphorical fire and we all know how things worked out for Joan regarding actual fire. The film never became that dark, but it at least teased in that direction.
One downside of the Joan of Arc reference was that it motivated Billie Jean to cut her long blonde hair into a much less attractive short haircut. She complimented that new look with a curious wetsuit-like top that she wore only partially zipped up. The resulting look appeared to be an attempt at combining the idea of a tough ‘rebel leader’ with a sexy edge. That desired appearance wasn’t entirely successful. On a related note, I can’t say that this look led to the most attractive film poster, particularly since the filmmakers had taken the very attractive Slater and made her comparatively less attractive.
Given all of the talk about Billie Jean becoming a media sensation, it might be surprising to learn that the stakes in the film never reached a very high level. “The Legend of Billie Jean” was rated PG-13 but mostly stayed firmly in the PG range of tame stakes. Yes, it had a near-rape plot point but any sort of physical assault was still a long way from happening.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some inadvertently mature situations in “The Legend of Billie Jean,” as the film certainly contained its share of odd choices. As previously mentioned, Billie Jean was first introduced while sunbathing. This was probably the sauciest scene in the film and it involved the audience being treated to poses of Slater in a skimpy bikini. She was out sunbathing on a raft with a teen wearing equally little clothing… who happened to be her brother. And, yes, there was an odd bit of tension between the pair given their lack of clothing and the camera’s focus on the sweat droplets on their skin.
Who would make these choices early in the film? Presumably that was director Matthew Robbins, who had ties to both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in their early careers. Robbins did uncredited work on Lucas’s “THX 1138” in 1971 and then wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express” in 1974. He also performed uncredited writing on Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” just prior to writing and directing Mark Hamill’s “Star Wars” follow-up “Corvette Summer” in 1978. Even in the wake of “The Legend of Billie Jean” not being a big hit, Robbins still went on to write and direct the Spielberg-produced “Batteries Not Included” in 1987.
All of this background history was mentioned to point out that Robbins wasn’t simply a random hack. However, his most-successful work probably wasn’t in the teen genre.
One last tidbit regarding Helen Slater’s fictional brother: Christian Slater later admitted in an interview that he had a big crush on Helen Slater while making the “The Legend of Billie Jean” and figured that the coincidence regarding their last name was a cosmic sign that they should marry. It might sound like I’m making this claim up, but that quote can be easily verified.
Also likely a decision on the part of director Robbins, Helen Slater played Billie Jean with an accent. It was a very bad lower-income Texas ‘hick’ accent that actually made her sometimes sound mentally challenged. Again, viewers were left to assume that this was another creative choice gone bad on the part of Robbins.
On a final directorial note, Rob Cohen, who later directed the first film in the lengthy “Fast and the Furious” franchise received his first credit as a 2nd unit director on “The Legend of Billie Jean.”
The music for “The Legend of Billie Jean” was probably one of its highlights. The film had a vocal theme of sorts by Pat Benatar entitled “Invincible” that was arguably a bigger commercial hit than the film itself. The song’s chorus was quite catchy in that catchy sort of 1980s way. The film’s score was composed by Craig Safan. Unfortunately, it was not nearly as memorable as Safan’s work on “The Last Starfighter.”
Speaking of “The Last Starfighter,” “The Legend of Billie Jean” did share one odd trait. In both cases, the leads in the films grew up in trailer parks. One would say that that background added to the rag-tag but close-knit flavor of the protagonist teens in both films.
A fine couple of coincidences to note: Slater’s later role in “City Slickers” would reunite her with Yeardley Smith from “The Legend of Billie Jean,” although I don’t think that the two were ever in a scene together in that later Billy Crystal-led film. Smith’s only scene in “City Slickers” involved her bursting into a party to tell Daniel Stern’s character that she had missed her period. That announcement revealed that Stern’s character was having an affair with Smith’s character in the film. Oddly, Smith’s character in “The Legend of Billie Jean” happened to have her first period after a significant action scene and that resulted in a weird kind of symmetry.
Smith would go on to be the voice of Lisa Simpson, but viewers might recognize her from other 1980s films such as “Maximum Overdrive.”
As I said earlier, “The Legend of Billie Jean” featured intersections with at least a few up-and-comer types and carried the torch of pop culture with some very 1980s elements. The film perhaps aspired to be more than it ultimately delivered to viewers, yet it reflected a later internet-fueled media era even if that portrayal of later teen behavior was likely more out of coincidence than intentional foresight.
Perhaps the film’s lack of box office glory came out of confusing the film’s target audience. What ended up being released felt like a ‘kid power’ film that was a bit too rough for the under-13 crowd that might have otherwise flocked to see “The Legend of Billie Jean.” Conversely, the film was a bit too soft to engage later-teen or adult audiences.
Rotten Tomatoes had “The Legend of Billie Jean” at 50% and that figure sounded about right. It wasn’t a horrible film and it featured a decent cast beyond the Slaters. People like Keith Gordon and Peter Coyote in key supporting roles were memorable. Unfortunately, “The Legend of Billie Jean” was probably too far ahead of its time to realize the potential of some of the ideas that it was stumbled into and how they’d pay off in our world decades later. As a piece of 1980s cheese though, viewers could do worse.