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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Billie
Billie
MGM // Unrated // May 11, 2004
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted May 31, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Championing equality is a relatively recent development in the social structure, an impractical idiom for the white male dominated domain that honestly should have been embraced eons ago. The concept that we would purposefully treat people differently because of their sex, race or belief system is about as shallow and illogical as ideologies get. Why not pick something even more superficial, like hair color or wine preference? One's heritage or biological limits should never dismiss them from opportunity, but for decades, these obvious attributes have been paraded out as reasons why certain sectors of the communal order are allowed the privilege of Constitutional consideration. This trickle down theory of due process has provided our country with some of its most vicious internal fighting, as well as some of our more enigmatic leaders. Without the wisdom and sacrifice of these brave defenders of human dignity, we'd still be living in a land of segregation, subjugation and 'separate by equal'.

No one will be hurrying to place Billie Carol up on the Mt. Rushmore of race/gender equity anytime soon. This tomboy with a taste for the Mersey beat believes that gals have every right to participate on the boy's track team (so far, so good). She challenges her politician father to explain away this grave inequity, especially considering how good she is at the sport. He can't (still batting 1000). She even finds like-minded individuals who champion her desire to compete on an equal footing (like her coach and her mother. Bravo, Billie). But before we declare this high school hotfoot the Susan B. Anthony of athletics, it's important to understand just where this activist agenda comes from. Is Billie a pioneer of scholastic civil disobedience? No. Is she on a quest to pave the way for true unprejudiced access to sports for all little ladies? Nope. Is it merely a matter of standing up for what's right, in spite of what everyone else thinks? Yes, but sadly that is beside the point. All Billie really wants is fatherly affection and a bo-hunky boyfriend. And she wants to sing about it as well. It's this miscalculation of mixed musical messages that makes balderdash out of Billie's beliefs. And the movie named after her so terribly uneven.

The DVD:
Billie is a 15-year-old high school tomboy who can outrun the members of the all-male track team. Billie uses "the beat" a rock and roll rhythm in her head to propel her legs faster and faster. When the coach notices her speed and skill, he insists she join the team. Only problem is, both the principal and her politician father don't agree. As head of the school, Mr. Wilson finds it disreputable that a girl would race with and against the boys. And Howard Carol, Billie's dad, is running for Mayor on a supposedly popular platform based on the idea that women are far inferior to men. But Billie wants to be on the squad anyway, and being a halfway decent father, Mr. Carol grants his permission. Besides, he's got other issues to contend with. His 20-year-old daughter has just returned home from college and she has some life-complicating news. And the sitting local official, Mayor Davis, has started a smear campaign against the contender, inferring that the Carol household is a God-less scandal. As Billie fights to be equal, she also begins to understand the complications of being the only female in a male dominated sport. This is especially true when her best friend, Mike Benson, starts falling in love with her.

Saccharine, syrupy and dipped in a slick show business coating of convenient convolutions, Billie is the 1965, Disney-fied version of an "issue" film, the kind of made for TV cinema that Lifetime and Oxygen currently specialize in. Taken from the play Time Out for Ginger (which begs the question, who is Ginger and why was the character's named changed to Billie) it's a movie that attempts to address the, at the time, rising interest in feminism and equal rights by handing out sheet music and letting the characters break out in song...well, a couple of songs. Billie is posited as a musical, but it's more like a muddle with pop tones. We get a melody in the intro, a solo ballad for young star Patty Duke (sitting pretty on a hit TV show and her Oscar for The Miracle Worker) reconfigured in two different versions and a Can't Stop the Music style all male locker room romp (talk about being ahead of its time). But this is not a case of music moving the storyline. Indeed, the melodies seem like an afterthought, a way of changing what was probably a much fiercer statement on civil rights onstage into a borderline boring bit of beach blanket jingoism aimed squarely at the too hip for this trip youth market. In combination with the scattershot agenda, exceptional acting and overall vibrant energy, Billie becomes a puzzle. It works in spite of itself, but also fails because of its very strengths.

As for its cast, Billie offers old-fashioned Hollywood spunk and specialty at its very best. Proving he was properly paired with power players like James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, Jim Backus manages the near impossible feat of balancing an extremely sexist viewpoint about the male/female dynamic with a good natured sense of compromise. He's nowhere near the tacky tastiness of Gilligan's Island's Thurston Howell III, but he manages to make us care about his character, even as he spouts his barefoot and pregnant viewpoint. As his long-suffering wife, Jane Greer has very little dialogue, forced to express all her inner feelings through eye movement and body language. Partly as a result of a battle with palsy at age 15 – an illness that left part of her face paralyzed – Greer's command of her facial gesturing is magical and makes Mr. Carol a compassionate, is passive, persona. Equally effective is Warren Berlinger, who many will probably remember from hundreds of TV appearances, as the young boy with a broken heart over his mixed emotions for Billie. On the one hand, he finds her attractive and caring. On the other, he is still under the influence of the paternalistic society he was raised in, believing that he could only go with a gal if she were a subservient shrinking violet. Along with familiar faces like Ted Bessell (That Girl), Richard Deacon (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Billy De Wolfe (a favorite fey villain in Uncle Walt's live action vault), the amount of talent here is impressive and completely understandable for a mid-60s Hollywood movie.

But this is really Patty Duke's showcase, and it's amazing how exceptional she is in her underwritten role. She almost single-handedly saves this middling movie. Billie still manages to fall apart and barely bumble across the finish line, but if there were a reason to sit through this cinematic time trial, it would be the effervescent child star. Impressive from a very young age, her turn in The Miracle Worker is still one of the best performances by a teenage actress onscreen. But few remember how ebullient and complicated her characters of Patty/Cathy, identical twin cousins, were on The Patty Duke Show (probably because they can't get past the now classic camp lyrics to the theme song "Patty likes to rock and roll/ a hot dog makes her lose control" Oh my). Only a year and a half before she'd tear up the soundstages as Nealy O'Hara in Jacqueline Susann's potboiler Valley of the Dolls, (and begin an impressive self-destructive phase as a little girl lost in a trashy tabloid Tinsel Town) Billie is best considered a middle motion picture, a placeholder for Duke in the Hollywood pecking order until she grew out of her awkward phase and grasped young adulthood by the script choice. Today, Duke is probably best known as either the mother of "fat hobbit" Sean "Samwise" Astin or as a manic-depressive victim of abuse, a molested mess who used to sleep in her own urine and feces, if you believe her tantalizing autobiography Call Me Anna. But she was (and according to the wealth of weepy TV movies she's made, still is) a glorious, gifted performer and Billie is a bubbly showcase for this unique talent.

It's just too bad that the movie couldn't have been more focused. When it's serious about the social issue of equality and women's rights, it's fresh and effective. There are debates between the mayoral candidates about freedom and gender equity - along with occasional battles on the homefront – that present both sides of the age old argument with dignity and decision. Problem is, once we are handed the solemn, the silly can't be far behind and Billie blows its political points with hokey jokes about locker rooms and liberation. Time Out for Ginger may have handled this material in a more mature manner, but Billie can only address it within a certain set of power point parameters. Get too aggressive in the agenda and it's time for some slapstick. The friction in the family unit is also explored with heart and honesty. Jim Backus' Howard Carol has a bad habit of calling his daughter "son", an obvious insight into his desire to have a heritage providing all the athletic pride to the family, not his teenybopper daughter. Billie's whole demeanor suggests a child trying to fit into her father's image of who she is, and that struggle, when explored, is very well done. Duke has a line where, after asking her aghast father if he loves her, she breaks out of the perky and shows the inner pain she is feeling. It's a moment so moving, so steeped in truth that we start to see what this movie is really supposed to be about. But then Billie has to go and cloud the concepts, undermining everything with vicious over plotting (the whole grown sister/marriage/scandal issue), the introduction of broad, buffoonish ancillary characters and lame, lumbering show tunes.

Indeed, the rock and roll angle, used to sell this movie both at the time of it's release and on the DVD version is woefully underdeveloped. Billie says she has "the beat", a typical 60s drum riff that makes her run faster than everyone else. Huh? How does that work, exactly? If it's merely a matter of listening to a ready steady rhythm in your head, why doesn't it work for everyone? Is this just a sheltered way of saying that Billie is really physically better than the boys on the team, and the PMA (positive MUSICAL attitude) she uses to excuse her excellence is a form of veiled self-denial? Who knows? All we really get are a couple of bogus British invasion instrumental numbers and a dance hall tutorial where Billie tries to impart her foot stomping on the rest of the gang. These goofy, gangly time wasters are obvious inserts, attempts by Hollywood to jazz up the adolescent angst inherent in a high school portion of the plot. The music is the most obvious awkward fit into the format of this movie. After a poignant moment between father and daughter, Billie will take to the auditorium stage and bounce around like she's auditioning for Bob Fosse's next show. The dance numbers can be excused, since the role of rock in mid-60s lifestyle had everyone onscreen doing the frug. But vocalizing is another issue all together. Sadly, Duke is no singer, and her horrible warbling of the main languid lament "Funny Little In-between/Butterflies" makes other child star singers seem like Sinatra. Still, her acting really sells the songs and it's this divergent dichotomy that keeps Billie from going completely belly-up. It also provides the properties that keep it awash in waves of wasted opportunities.

Billie wants to be something both challenging and cheery, a movie that makes its pointed political positions with genuineness and gentility. But it also wants to play in the arena of the adolescent, selling its shaggy dog anti-sexism with far too much formulaic foolishness. The message of this messy motion picture is plain and simple: people should be allowed to explore their own options in life, left to learn what fits them, and their gender, best. But it's buried in a bunch of situation comedy cornball conventions that all but destroy the dogma. If it weren't for the fine acting and the fleeting glimpses of genuine compassion, Billie would be a bust, a tired trinket in the forgotten canon of Patty Duke's post-child stardom. If it had mined the real issue of gender equality and equal rights, it would have been a heralded example of ahead of its time testifying. But thanks to the inclusion of soundtrack fattening facets and a substantial chunk of stage play clunkiness, Billie can't get its particular point across. Instead, this movie has about as many flawed facets as its star would soon battle in real life. Billie is not a complete waste of time. But with this cast, there must have been a better story to tell than this one.

The Video:
What an abomination! There is no excuse, NONE WHATSOEVER that this widescreen title should be presented in a horribly cropped, crappily panned and scanned 1.33:1 full screen nightmare of a transfer for DVD release. MGM should be ashamed. It is obvious that the company believes that kids will be the sole audience for this film, so why waste the time and money on a remaster or restoration? While the picture itself is colorful and clean, the lack of proper presentation is deadly to this musical dramedy. Director Don Weis utilized the entire letterbox frame to stage his sequences – especially in the dance numbers – and when compressed into a 4x3 box, the amount of shifting and swerving to capture the action is sea sickening. If you want to see what this film COULD have looked like in all its pristine original aspect ratio glory, check out the sole bonus: the theatrical trailer. One look and you'll be cursing Leo the Lion for all his "family friendly" foolhardiness.

The Audio:
Billie's ballads and dance band ballyhoo are presented in a flat, featureless Dolby Digital Mono that really renders almost all the sonic shifts incredibly shrill. The dialogue is crisp and understandable, but the rest of the movie's aural aspects, from the score to the songs, sound pretty sad. Again, MGM could have tried to broaden the sonic canvas by remastering the audio elements, but that was apparently too much for them as well.

The Extras:
The sole bonus is the aforementioned trailer. It is a wonderful slice of hardball selling that makes Billie seem like a rollicking rollercoaster of rock and roll and role reversal. Just goes to show you that the bait and switch was alive and well 40 years ago. It was not a Michael Bay invention.

Final Thoughts:
Billie would be a very easy film to dismiss. It's sappy when it should be sharp, winsome when it needs to be wise. It believes that all young girls, if given a chance to compete on a equal footing with the boys, we realize the error of their overreaching ways and be content to represent their sex as prom dates and cheerleaders, not captains of the athletic teams. It's steeped in the paternalistic mythos that women don't know what they want and can't understand how hard it is to be a male in a man's world. And it believes, much like Parenthood or She's Having a Baby, that biology and the birthing of a brat makes everything sunny and bright. With this antiquated agenda pushing its buttons, Billie should insult more people than it empowers. But somehow, over all the hot button issues and Elvis-level production numbers, this political piffle is enjoyable and genuine. And it's thanks, in no small part, to the pitch perfect acting of the ensemble here. Sure, Duke holds the majority of the movie with her blond pageboy moxie, but it's the winning support she gets from the rest of the cast, mixed with moments of sentiment and spirit that recommend this otherwise routine film. Billie may not have helped advance the Title 9 mentality sweeping through competitive athletics, but it understood one simple thing. People should be treated as equals, even if they aren't alike on the inside or the out. There's nothing wrong with that message. Nothing at all.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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