Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Film Review: THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN (1985, Matthew Robbins)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Helen Slater (SUPERGIRL, CITY SLICKERS, RUTHLESS PEOPLE), Christian Slater (GLEAMING THE CUBE, TRUE ROMANCE), Richard Bradford (THE UNTOUCHABLES, MISSING), Peter Coyote (E.T., SOUTHERN COMFORT, SLAYGROUND), Keith Gordon (JAWS 2, CHRISTINE, DRESSED TO KILL), Dean Stockwell (BLUE VELVET; PARIS, TEXAS), Yeardley Smith (THE SIMPSONS, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE). Music by The Divinyls, Pat Benatar, Billy Idol, Wendy O. Williams, & Craig Safan (the composer of CHEERS and THE LAST STARFIGHTER).
Tag-line: "The last thing she ever expected was to become a hero."
Best one-liner: "Hey, get your hand off that!" –"What, your sister? Or your fagmobile?"

Feeling like sort of a cross between LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: THE FABULOUS STAINS and BONNIE AND CLYDE, it may surprise some to learn that THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN is actually an adaptation of THE LEGEND OF MICHAEL KOHLHAAS, an 1811 novel based on historical events that took place in Saxony in the 1530's. It's a series of injustices that might seem trivial to a member of the ruling class (stolen horses or a trashed scooter), but which make all the difference in the world to someone eking out a poverty-laden existence (be it in a fiefdom or a trailer park). However, in adapting this story for mainstream 80's audiences, a lot gets lost in translation, and our suspension of disbelief undergoes some serious wear and tear. But it doesn't matter- pump up the power on that Pat Benatar, arch your burgeoning Slater eyebrows, and sing it loud- "FAIR IS FAIR!" The casting is perfect: Helen 'SUPERGIRL' Slater is striking, fiery, and determined.

Part Joan of Arc, part Travis Bickle, she riles up the masses with a genuine charisma and righteous indignation that make this movie so damned watchable.

Bleached blond Christian Slater (no relation) reveals, even at the tender age of 15, some of the smart-alecky greatness that was to come.

Note eyebrows.

Nicholson pal Richard Bradford is fantastic as a Stacy Keach-style skeeze who seems beyond the law:

Look at that curled lip, that sleazy stache, the gutter 'tude.

Peter Coyote embodies the beleaguered, good-hearted cop who's won over by the kids' plight:

Coyote: getting too old for this shit?

and Dean Stockwell (BLUE VELVET) is an a-hole politico whose rebellious wolfman-lovin' son (Keith Gordon) gets thrown into the mix. Yeardley Smith (Lisa from THE SIMPSONS) is a lovable hayseed, and we even get a bit part from quintessential Texas gal Caroline Williams ('Stretch' from TEXAS CHAINSAW 2). There's some ridiculous homoerotic mistreatment at the hands of some Golan/Globus-worthy jag-offs (in cut-offs), which ends with some homoerotic milkshake-pouring revenge:

Messing with young Slater leads to eyebrow action and....


there's some classic '80's media circus' social commentary; there are not 1, not 2, not 3, but FOUR senseless lowblows; and Christian Slater gets to rock out a dress.

Note lipstick.

Yes, this is a cult classic. Four stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Watching films when Keith Gordon was an actor makes me appreciate his decision to stay behind the camera. Not that he was a lousy actor or anything (he was good in the De Palma films and, of course, CHRISTINE) but he has really come into his own as a director.

And whatever happened to Helen Slater. I remember as a young lad having a major crush on her in that Michael J. Fox film she did, SECRET OF MY SUCCESS.

Sean Gill said...

Heh, I do like Keith in CHRISTINE. Wasn't so big on his interpretation of MOTHER NIGHT, but THE CHOCOLATE WAR and his WILD PALMS eps are top notch. I don't believe I've seen anything else by him besides the DEXTER episodes which seem to be keeping him busy these days (and he had a cameo appearance in Season 4).

As for Helen Slater- definitely a lot of charisma and talent, and though she's worked steadily, it's mostly been just random TV appearances since the 90's. Looks like her last hurrah was in '91 with CITY SLICKERS and a role in the early Milch series CAPITAL NEWS. Do we blame SUPERGIRL? It seems almost like it launched her career and killed it at the same time! I haven't seen SECRET OF MY SUCCESS, but it certainly looks like it'd be up my alley.

J.D. said...

I'm gonna do a review on Gordon's best film, WAKING THE DEAD on my blog which is worth checking out. I did love WILD PALMS (so underrated!) but it's been years since I've watched it. Wow, DEXTER, eh? cool.

As for Slater, yeah, a quick browse of her CV on the IMDB shows loads of TV work. Yeah, SUPERGIRL and its big commercial bellyflop didn't do her career any favors but it's good to know that she's still popping up here and there. You might like SUCCESS in a cheesy WEEKEND AT BERNIES kind of '80s vibe... minus the corpse, of course.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...


This was a great revisitation of a film I actually saw in the cinemas.

You reminded me how much I enjoyed Helen Slater. JD took the words out of my mouth. I've been wondering where she's been?

Your additional comments were so perfect about Supergirl singularly launching and killing her career. That is a great comment.

I also loved your additional input. I forgot she was in City Slickers but I remember her now that you say that.

She was such a beauty. I was really captured by her in a Lindsay Wagner kind of way you know. Anyway, great revisit! Thank you.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by- I appreciate your comments!

It is too bad she didn't get more roles like Billie Jean. Sometimes movies try and capture the idea of a folk hero but it'll often fall flat because you're wondering 'how could this person actualllly inspire others to follow them?' Yet in BILLIE JEAN, Helen's got the likability, the fortitude, and even the (justified) crazy-eye stare, that you're like 'Yeah, I could see her successfully inciting a riot.' To make a long story short: I will join your revolution, Helen- I mean, Billie Jean.

Tempest said...

I thought I had commented on this. I only watched it because of one Slater and it wasn't Helen...though I liked her in Supergirl. I agree, seeing this made me wonder what happened to her. I liked her in the 80s. I had no idea this was an adaptation of a 19th-century book. I thought this film started off promising, then became too cheesy, but I am not going to tear it to shreds. I am sure it was groundbreaking for its time. I did not realize Keith Gordon directed several Dexter episodes. It is one of my favorite shows.