Legend of Billie Jean
Let’s talk about Helen Slater, an actress whose career peaked with her second movie, The Legend of Billie Jean. In doing so, I’ll talk about a thing I like to call the Alba Window, in that Ms. Slater did not make the most of hers.
The Alba Window is a point in an actress’s career where she is the Hot New Thing, and as such, a fair amount of high profile work gets thrown at her. Now, probably the smartest thing an actress can do with her Alba Window, if she doesn’t think she can pull a Charlize*, is to book every single one of these jobs that she can fit into her schedule. Because sooner or later—probably sooner—those jobs will dry up, and work will be harder to get.
*- A “Charlize” is when an actress shows she has the performance chops above and beyond the initial impressions.
So, Helen Slater, who had lead roles in her first two movie, started with the atrocious Supergirl, and followed it up with this, where she really tries to show that she can act. After this, she had romantic interest roles in Ruthless People and Secret of My Success, and then more or less slipped off the cultural radar completely. She didn’t have another significant role until four years later, where in City Slickers she only exists to keep the cattle-drive portion of the movie from being a complete sausage fest. Beyond that, she spent much of the nineties doing straight-to-video and tv movies, such as the not-Groundhog Day Jonathan Silverman vehicle 12:01. The 2000s were spent doing the sort of guest-star roles on TV shows that needed a recognizable face that won’t overshadow the actual stars. You know, like the killer, victim or key witness in SVU, or a Significant Patient in Grey’s Anatomy.
My point is, she never again reached the level she had with Legend, which should have been her chance to get as much work as possible. Instead, we have this as her signature role. Rest assured, when Helen Slater’s obituary is eventually written, this is the movie that will get the key mention. And that’s a shame for Helen, because it is not a good movie.
In fact, when Pat Benatar plays the central theme song, “Invincible”, in concert, she prefaces the song with, “This is from the worst movie ever made”.
I don’t think Ms. Benatar is entirely right with that claim, but lord, it isn’t good.
Getting to the movie itself, Helen Slater plays the titular Billy Jean, a girl whose righteousness is matched only by her stupidity. I’m serious, she is not smart at all. This movie’s entire plot is centered on her stupid choices.
Anyway, she’s a teenage girl who lives in a small Texas town with her brother, and no apparent parental figures, and a vaguely incestuous relationship. I mean, really, she rides on the back of her brother’s bike, legs wrapped around him and says, “Don’t you get tired of vanilla?” Then they lounge around by the lake in their underwear. It’s the kind of town that 80s movies love, where a group of boys can blatantly sexually harass girls, and then beat up said girl’s brother (Christian Slater, no relation) and steal his motorbike. And then, of course, suffer no consequences. But it should be noted they suffer no consequences because Billie Jean and her brother Binx (SERIOUSLY?) are STUPID. So is everyone else in this movie.
Namely, when said motorbike is stolen, they go to the cops, but somehow can’t manage to express “these boys beat up my brother and stole his motorbike” in a way that gets Detective Peter Coyote to take “assault and grand theft” seriously. I mean, if you want to spot where this movie goes off the rails, this is it, right off the bat. The ENTIRE PLOT hinges on cops just shrugging off serious crimes, forcing Billie Jean to take matters into her own hands.
Of course, that’s the kind of small town it is: boys assault someone and steal his motorbike, and the cops are all, “Eh, boys will be boys.”
Which is exactly how the lead boy’s dad—Mr. Pyatt–reacts when Billie Jean goes to him to get him to pay up for the damage his son caused. He decides that, rather than take responsibility for the actions of his son, this is the prime time to attempt statutory rape and coerce a young girl into prostitution, but failing that, actual rape. However, while he’s attempting to molest Billie Jean in the back of his store, Binx finds his gun in the front of the store. Binx, with the man’s gun in hand, opts for waving it in vaguely at Pyatt until he shoots the man in the shoulder. This was after Pyatt told him it wasn’t loaded.
EVERYONE IN THIS MOVIE IS STUPID.
So Billie Jean, Binx, and their two friends, Dumb Girl and Lisa Simpson, go on the run, since they shot a man. I don’t know why, since the cops in their town would clearly treat it as “wacky misunderstanding”, but they do. After some time as fugitives, with Pyatt getting them up on the news as “armed and dangerous”, they decide to hide in what they presume in an empty mansion. But it turns out it isn’t empty, it’s got some bored rich kid who loves video cameras. He thinks it’s cool that she’s on the run, but tells her she needs to control her side of the message. This more or less makes him the least stupid person in the movie, which is a low bar to clear. So he sets up a camera for her to record her side of the story—namely that Pyatt and his son are both assholes, and they only want the $608 dollars to repair the bike—but first she’s inspired by seeing a Joan of Arc movie. So she cuts off her hair, which is apparently a radical act in small town Texas in 1985. Seriously, everyone is all, “A GIRL WITH SHORT HAIR?”
So she sends her message out to the news stations, and they all drive out, the rich kid joining in as their “hostage”. They go on the run some more, and in the meantime Bilie Jean becomes an icon to all the stupid teenagers in Texas. So much so, Pyatt starts making a killing selling Billie Jean t-shirts and other merchandise. THIS IS HOW STUPID THESE KIDS ARE: Pyatt is LITERALLY the bad guy that Billie Jean EXPLICITLY NAMES in her video, and these kids who are looking up to her GIVE HIM THEIR MONEY.
Life on the run isn’t easy, so Billie Jean explicitly ditches Dumb Girl and Lisa Simpson to save them, though that just gets them brought to their mom, who slaps Lisa Simpson in the face. Lisa Simpson responds by grabbing a pair of scissors and gives herself a Billie Jean cut.
After further life on the run splits Billie Jean from her brother and the rich boy, she gets picked up by some strange girl sporting her same haircut. This girl is part of a whole network of kids who help move Billie Jean around from place-to-place, so she can be everywhere and nowhere at once.
You know… a LEGEND.
After a bit of this, she finds her brother and rich boy again, and they come up with a terrible plan to turn themselves in and get the $608 from Pyatt. It becomes a whole beach party, and things go badly, which ends up with Binx getting shot in the shoulder. Finally Billie Jean gets a public confrontation with Pyatt, and he admits to being a horrible human being—or at least doing all the things Billie Jean says, though he thinks he’s still awesome. So, all the Billie Jean followers burn their Pyatt merchandise. She slips off into the night, and then she and her brother are both fine, living in Vermont.
Because $608 is all it takes to live off the land up there in winter.
But, hey, Dean Stockwell shows up here somewhere. Honestly, I forget what he does, but Dean Stockwell is always cool.
NEXT WEEK: Back to School
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