There’s been a lot of talk recently regarding the lack of female superhero films in general and the lack of great ones in particular, but I’d argue the singular fun one has been sitting right in front of us since the mid-eighties. And it stars Helen Slater in the title role. And it’s not Supergirl.
The Legend of Billie Jean is about a young woman who stands up for truth and justice, changes into a sexy costume (of sorts), has sidekicks and a nemesis and even has her own catchphrase in “Fair is fair!” It’s cheesier than a constipated cow, but the story and character beats deliver fun and excitement all set to a catchy ’80s soundtrack. The supporting cast is a roster of familiar faces in Christian Slater, Yeardley Smith, Peter Coyote, Keith Gordon and Dean Stockwell, but the film belongs to Helen Slater.
The film just hit Blu-ray a few weeks ago, and it includes the commentary track recorded for the 2008 DVD release featuring her and Smith. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for The Legend of Billie Jean.
The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)
Commentators: Helen Slater and Yeardley Smith (actors)
1. Yeardley Smith says that she’s been approached by people in public who recognize her from this film, and the most commonly quoted line she hears from them is “When can I get a diaphragm?!”
2. Helen Slater’s first comment, the one she feels compelled to set straight immediately, is that Christian Slater is not actually her brother. She says people always assume they’re related to which I can only reply… guilty as charged.
3. Helen thinks she has a terrible Southern accent in the film to which Smith replies “We all do!”
4. Smith recalls feeling bad for Christian because while the three girls hung out together between shots he had no one. Worse, since he was only fifteen years old he also had to attend classes during the shoot. On the bright side he got to do that raft scene with Helen, and now that I know they’re not siblings I refuse to feel sorry for the guy.
5. Which is the perfect lead-in for Smith to ask Helen if she felt exploited during that shot [featuring Helen in her bikini bottom and tiny tang-top]. “Well, you know,” she replies, “I’ll never look that good again.”
6. Helen says the original script was by Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe, Yanks, Semi-Tough), but he ended up uncredited after multiple re-writes. She feels his experience having been a blacklisted writer in Hollywood shows through in this film’s subtext (and not-so sub text). “It [the movie] has such a strong sense of justice,” says Smith.
7. Helen and Smith both love Peter Coyote. See, celebrities are just like us!
8. Both actors are also shocked once the f-bombs start dropping. There are two in the span of sixty seconds, and while Helen wonders how they didn’t get an R-rating Smith points out that the PG-13 was far more lenient in its early days. Helen worries that maybe her daughter — who’s in the room watching the movie with them — maybe shouldn’t be watching the movie after all. It’s okay though as they quickly realize the girl has already left. “Can you believe she’s not even watching! She’s never seen the movie, couldn’t care less.”
9. Richard Bradford’s first appearance prompts Smith to say “Oh this guy is so scary. He was just so slimy in this role.” They both go on to praise his performance several times.
10. After Smith compliments Martha Gehman’s dry delivery Helen comments that she [Martha] was almost thirty years old at the time. “She’ll kill you for saying that,” cautions Yeardley. They also point out that she’s the daughter of Estelle Parsons.
11. Helen points out multiple scenes where she’s in a wig because they needed reshoots after her hair had already been drastically cut.
12. Smith still has the stuffed bear her character treasures. “I always try to keep one thing from each show that I did.”
13. Smith recalls a few of them going to see Supergirl on opening day during this film’s shoot. “It was middle of the day, opening day, quite empty. We were so proud of you.” Helen’s only reply is to say “that part of my brain’s been cauterized.” She then quickly changes the subject to how handsome Coyote is. Smith slips in an anecdote she heard about how Helen brought her own cape to the Supergirl audition. Helen does not deny it.
14. They recall how little there was to do in Corpus Christi back in ’84 and how they would all pile in to Helen’s Jeep and head to the mall during their time off. Helen recalls how it was a new experience for her as there were no malls in New York City. “Now you have a couple,” points out Smith which launches the women into discussing the new one at Columbus Circle, how it’s beautiful and high end and has a huge Whole Foods at the bottom.
15. After Helen points out how cute and young Smith looks in the film — she was twenty years old playing fourteen — Smith recalls that her early career on stage and screen was spent playing teens much younger than herself. “Then I got to the point that if you actually put me actually next to a fifteen year old I couldn’t pull it off anymore,” she says. “Something in the eyes.”
16. It’s clear the two are watching the film for the first time in a long time, and Helen in particular seems taken with the various themes woven through the otherwise simple plot. She comments on the power of media, truth and betrayal throughout the film while drawing correlations to Bernstein’s struggle as well as the upcoming (the commentary was recorded in 2008) presidential election.
17. Billie Jean’s infamous transition from long to short hair happened off-screen, and Helen recalls the born again Christian hairdresser doing a prayer before the cut. She recalls it being intense and somewhat traumatic but also freeing both physically and due to its androgynous look. “And of course you always put a wet suit on after you cut your hair at two o’clock in the morning,” she adds. Seeing it now though Helen is actually quite fond of the cut. Later on she verbally considers getting it cut similarly now.
18. Smith points out that her breasts were strapped down with an Ace bandage to complete the illusion of being fourteen, but she regrets it also makes her look barrel-chested.
19. The two are “yapping” during the scene where boys come to the car window asking Billie Jean to help their friend and proceed to wonder aloud what the little boy’s name is. “Tommy? Billy? Lloyd? Fred? Pee-wee?” It’s Kenny. Smith also recalls that the abusive father is played by John M. Jackson who she went on to work with again a decade later.
20. Smith’s most regrettable scene — Putter’s first period! — leads to some laughs from them both. “I personally don’t know any girls who were happy to get their period,” she says.
21. Smith asks Helen if Keith Gordon was a good kisser. “I think, I can’t remember, sorry Keith if you’re watching this,” says Helen apologetically. “It’s always so odd. Someone in your space putting their mouth on you and you’re not married to them.” Yeardley then shares how she did a film with Jeremy Piven where she had to try and make some moves on him even though the two actors had just met that day.
22. Helen is still surprised that she has more fans approach her referencing this film than any other.
23. The scene where Putter’s mom arrives at the police station leads to Smith recalling how the actress playing her was unaware she didn’t actually have to slap her. She says it left her face numb.
24. Helen seems uninterested in celebrating or even discussing some of Billie Jean’s saucier moments. The scene where we her and Lloyd (Gordon) start canoodling on a blanket sees Helen talking about night shoots and getting home just in time for the sunrise and anything but the sexy time.
25. Putter’s haircut protest scene initially called for Smith to actually cut her incredibly long hair, but she resisted. Or protested anyway. Instead they settled on a hideous wig and a flipped-up collar to hide her thick ponytail’s descent beneath her jacket.
26. The big beach finale strikes both actors as a mystery as neither remember what happens. When the two silhouetted figures coming walking over the dune they recall that it’s Christian’s character in a dress. “But that looks like me,” says Helen to which Smith replies simply “It ain’t you.” Both women gasp when Binx (Christian) gets shot.
27. Both actors regret not keeping any of the swag. In Helen’s case it’s more about the frisbees than the sexy posters though.
28. The final scene in Vermont (but actually filmed in Colorado, probably) features the one item that Helen kept from the shoot… a sweater she never wears.
Best in Commentary
- Smith: “I remember thinking this film is going to make me a huge star. And I think it was out barely long enough to roll the end credits.”
- Helen: “Oh my gosh the language in this movie!”
- Helen: “I like that I have my earrings on while I’m on the run.”
- Helen: “I don’t remember this at all.”
- Helen: “I don’t remember how this ends.”
After first seeing The Legend of Billie Jean nearly three decades ago it became one of those movies that I never sought out but would instead watch again on the rare occasions I came across it on TV. Since picking up this new Blu-ray though I’ve watched it twice more — once to reacquaint myself and once with the commentary — and both viewings were good fun. The commentary track shows both Slater and Smith in good spirits even as they humorously struggle to remember the movie they’re commenting on. They recall plenty of small details but hearing them wonder aloud how the movie ends? Priceless.