Sure. Billie Jean is not a superhero in the spandex, cape, superpowers sense. And she is not based on a pre-existing comic book character. But she is a strong female warrior, who is truly a hero in her own right. And the movie The Legend of Billie Jean serves as the perfect template for what has come since in the realm of female superhero movies, none-of-them, dare we even say Wonder Woman, quite able to live up to the excitement and adventure on display here in all its raw, 80s form. Even so, it often gets overlooked whenever the subject of female led movies comes up, specifically those of the superhero kind. It barely ever registers a blip. Though it had a familiar superhero in the lead by way of Helen Slater, who played Supergirl just one year before.
It's almost like the writers of The Legend of Billie Jean, Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, who would also produce this film with, among others, Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious) and Peter Guber (Batman), crafted this tale knowing that it's ultimate fate would be a succes d'estime. They just knew that this film would be completely overlooked upon its release in 1985. And it still has never gotten the acclaim or cult status that it truly deserves.
Arriving from Tri Star Pictures, The Legend of Billie Jean came out in nearly 1000 theaters. This summer film took in just shy of $1.5 million dollars during its opening weekend that spanned from July 19 to July 21, 1985. That weekend it actually beat Fletch for the 14th spot at the box office. To be fair, Fletch had already been gracing theaters for about two months at that point. Currently, the budget for this film is unclear but it did come out under the Sony Tristar Banner.
The plot for The Legend of Billie Jean was so simple, that probably worked against it. Also, regarding the the film's star, Helen Slater, this film, at that point in her career may have made the proceedings downright confusing. She had just done Supergirl in 1984. It would seem that she should do another film of a different caliber. Perhaps another big film that was a drama. Instead, she did The Legend of Billie Jean which was a small tale and appeared to be made on a smaller scale than her previous projects. In short, Helen Slater's career seemed to be going backwards.
The story for The Legend of Billie Jean, like most legends, is small yet resounding. Billie Jean (Helen Slater) is often harassed by people in her hometown for her looks. When some of these people trash her brother's (Christian Slater, no relation) scooter for fun, Billie tries to reason with them as she seeks justice. When that doesn't work she goes to their father who makes the problem even worse. He tries to solicit sex from Billie Jean in order to pay for the scooter repair. Things escalate from here with the father being shot and Billie Jean and her brother going on the run. What ensues is a modern day folktale as, despite tremendous odds, Billie Jean and Co. will not give up their fight for justice because "fair is fair"! In the end, Billie Jean and her brother get the justice they seek but it comes with a price.
Was this film overlooked because Slater's portrayal of Billie Jean was too strong? Was "Supergirl" not supposed to be in films where teens used guns, bad language and ran afoul of the law? The Legend of Billie Jean recalls such films as Over The Edge, Class of 1984, and The Boys Next Door. While not nearly as harsh as those youth empowerment films, the three films, for the most part, had male protagonists doing all the dirty work. This made the violence safe. It made the language safe. The truly brutal scenes in these films were almost comical. In short, viewers were used to seeing that from men. The Legend of Billie Jean featured (gasp!) a woman being violent. A woman standing up for and asserting herself. Those female images of youth empowerment were probably deemed much more dangerous than those other films.
Quite simply, The Legend of Billie Jean used Supergirl (Helen Slater) to subvert the Supergirl persona. One can tell by Slater's involvement with the 2011 DVD release that this film was obviously close to her. Why else would Slater release a remastered version of this film with a commentary track? It is apparent by Slater's career that she was bent on playing stronger females on screen. Look at her roles in Ruthless People, The Secret of My Success and TV's much lauded Mad Men. So, to have her on screen as Supergirl and then Billie Jean must've seemed almost schizophrenic. Tristar probably figured that audiences, even though they know they are watching actors, wouldn't be able to get passed such a strong character shift.
So, they simply withdrew their support and perhaps hoped to hit pay-dirt with the film's soundtrack? But that didn't work either, as no official soundtrack from the film was ever released despite the led track 'Invincible' becoming one Pat Benatar's biggest hits. Known as the official theme song, it was shuffled off to Benatar's 1985 studio album Seven the Hard Way, with the song getting nominated for a Grammy and hitting #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September of 1985. There were other great songs on the soundtrack, but the movie was seen as a lost cause. And any soundtrack plans were scrapped.
Maybe The Legend of Billie Jean was too cool for it's own good? In addition to the red hot Helen Slater, it had new actors like Christian Slater, Keith Gordon, and the up and coming Yeardley Smith. It also had solid older actors like Peter Coyote, Dean Stockwell and the revelatory Richard Bradford. Add to this that the story was centered around a scooter. In the 1980s, for a young person, aside from owning a Mustang, was there a vehicle that was cooler? Recalling 1979's Quadrophenia, both films shared a youth empowerment theme, a scooter (or vespa) theme, and they both looked at different subcultures of American society. For Quadrophenia it was Mods and for The Legend of Billie Jean it was Rustbelt/river culture. This says nothing of the soundtrack which featured the youth anthem "Invincible (Theme from The Legend of Billie Jean) by Pat Benatar, the Divinyls, Billy Idol, and Wendy O. Williams among others. The song choices for this film were as bold and brash as the characters it was portraying. They perfectly underscored the idea of a female warrior coming into her own.
In all my years of being a writer/contributor for this site I have never done this. I want you to see this article as a call to arms. I am demanding that you watch or rewatch The Legend of Billie Jean. So vital is this film to both the woman and youth empowerment movements, that it is nothing short of shameful that it has gone unnoticed. It makes one wonder if Tristar didn't act as their own private COINTELPRO? You know that FBI organization that subverted burgeoning political organizations so that they could contain them. Maybe the studio knew what they had in The Legend of Billie Jean and as a result didn't give it the push that it truly deserved? Maybe their release was only cursory in nature? They satisfied their contractual obligations and then were done? Whatever the case you need to see this film.
Currently, Wonder Woman is all the rage at the box office. It is being hailed as the "woman's film" of the summer. And it is very much about female empowerment. However, 32 summers ago, there was another film. It wasn't just about female empowerment. It was about youth empowerment and that made it bigger and more broad than today's Wonder Woman. Over time, through home video, it would ultimately find it's audience. In many ways this made it more subversive, more like an underground manifesto. And that film was The Legend of Billie Jean, the first truly great female driven superhero movie. Even if Billie Jean isn't quite what we think of when we hear the term superhero today.