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Billie
(1965)

Director: Don Weis
Cast:
Patty Duke, Jim Backus, Jane Greer


Though you may not personally remember them because they happened so long ago, no doubt your parents have mentioned to you on occasion that you went through the "terrible twos". Your parents were mentioning the time when you were very young when your behavior made you quite a handful. But eventually, the months and years passed and you were no longer that aggravating little kid. But your parents may not have known that another volatile time concerning you would eventually rear its ugly head. I'm talking about the time when you entered your adolescent years, which could very well be called the "terrible teens". Over the years I have heard countless stories from parents facing various challenges coming from their teenage children that make a tantrum from a toddler look like a walk in the park in comparison, ranging from their teenage children wanting to take the family car out for a spin to their teenage children getting involved in questionable romantic relationships. But it's not just parents who have a problem with the teenage years of their children - their teenage children also have problems of their own during this period. When I think back on my own years as a teenager, I sometimes wonder how I got through it all. I can remember the morning as a teenager when I woke up, made my way to the bathroom for my typical morning ritual, and when I got to the bathroom mirror discovering that overnight a gigantic zit had formed on the tip of my nose. There was no way to instantly get rid of it or disguise it. To make matters worse, it was a school day, and I had to be at school in just a couple of hours. My memories of school have faded enough that I don't remember how I got through school that day, but that is just as well - I don't want to even imagine what my classmates were thinking of me that day.

In case you are wondering why I decided to tell you that particular embarrassing story about myself, it was to make a point about the years of adolescence that most of us face on a frequent basis. That point is that as we are going through the teenage years, most of us to some degree or another want to conform to their peers, to be accepted and feel like they fit in with this particular slice of society. No doubt you know what it's like for a teenager who doesn't conform to his or her peers, whether you know from personal experience or what you observed growing up. I would like to talk about a certain kind of teenage rebellion against conformity, and that is when a teen does things more associated with the opposite sex. I have to admit that I don't really understand adolescent males who choose to do feminine things, though I do agree some female roles are handy for a male to know; knowing how to sew a button has helped me on several occasions. However, when it comes to teenage girls wanting to do things that are generally thought to be male activities, I do understand why some teenage girls would attempt to emulate their male peers. For one thing, just look at how sports are treated at high schools. Great attention is placed on the schools' basketball and football teams, at least as long as the teams are full of males. A school may have a female basketball team, but it's almost like an afterthought. A related second reason is that in their teenage years, girls really get to realize that there are more opportunities for men in the workforce once high school is finished. Certainly there have been great gains for women in various kinds of employment over the past few decades, but no doubt you know there are a lot more jobs dominated by men than those that are dominated by women.

Personally, I don't care whether a male or a female is in some kind of job or activity - I only care if he or she can do the work in the job or activity well. With my saying that, you might understand why I am sympathetic to a female who tries to break conformity and do something more Billieassociated with a male. And if that female is a teenager, I admire them more, since there is so much more peer pressure than any other time in their lives that threatens to reject them. All of what I've said up to this point is to explain why I was attracted to Billie when I found it in a pawn shop. True, the movie was unlike most movies I've reviewed for this web site - it was over fifty years old, and made with no exploitation spirit. But like the main character in the movie, there are times that I like to go off the beaten path and widen my perspective. The main character of the movie is the character mentioned in the movie's title, one Billie Carol (Duke, The Patty Duke Show). Billie is a rock 'n' roll loving fifteen year old girl in the small town of Harding who is quite the tomboy, not just for the fact she sports short hair. For example, she is the only female member of her school's track team, and she regularly leaves the male members of the team way back in the dust. Indeed, her father Howard Carol (Backus, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World) seems at times to regard her as the son he never had. But eventually problems come up for Billie, both at school and at home. Howard is a candidate in the upcoming local election for mayor, and he has been campaigning on a platform that men are superior to women and the two sexes should not compete - so Billie's success at the high school track team becomes a threat to his campaign. Not only that, Billie's male friend Mike Benson (Warrer Berlinger, Outlaw Force), who also happens to be a member of the high school track team and has aspirations to be a top athlete, is embarrassed that Billie is superior to him on the track. Soon he is demanding that she quit the track team, which hurts because Billie is starting to have feelings stronger than friendship towards Mike.

From that above plot description of Billie, as well as the fact that actress Patty Duke is top billed in the credits, it's likely that you have a good assumption as to how the movie plays out in one regard. You are probably thinking that the character of Billie Carol is up front and center in just about the entire movie. Surprisingly, that is not the case. While the character does get the most attention of all characters in the movie, it's not by a wide margin - the movie gives other characters some significant screen time. Billie's father Howard, for one thing gets a number of scenes where he gets a lot of focus. With the character of Billie getting less screen time than expected, it becomes clear that actress Patty Duke had more of a acting challenge than usual, having to make a strong character with less to work with. Fortunately, Duke manages to make Billie a character that will stick in your mind long after the movie has reached the end. She performs every scene that she's in with great enthusiasm. It's a very physical role, obviously for the scenes where the character is on the track field, but also during a dance number midway through the movie. Duke gives the physical portion of her role not only great energy, but a convincing energy; we really believe Billie is an athletic person who enjoys being on the track. We also believe it not only from her actions, but also from her words. Several times this character reveals her athletic secret, which is running "The Beat" - derived from the rock and roll music that she loves - through her head while she is on the field. Written down, this might read as silly, but when Duke is onscreen explaining it, you can't help but believe this character's explanation. Duke gives this character such a bubbly and fun-loving personality that you can't help but be swept up by her infectious spirit and follow her along her journey.

Along that journey, the movie brings in a number of other and different characters, some of which manage to shine in their own unique way. The role of Agnes, Billie's mother, is pretty small, but actress Jane Greer (Against All Odds) makes it memorable by some subtle but effective acting. When her other daughter Jean (Susan Seaforth Hayes of Days Of Our Lives) tries concealing that she secretly married her long time boyfriend, Jean's frantic behavior has Agnes struggling to not smile or laugh. From Greer's retrained performance, you can tell her character has determined the secret. While Warren Berlinger is too old to look the part of a teenager (he was twenty eight years old), he does play the role of Billie's friend Mike down to earth, successfully selling his character's mixed emotions and generating chemistry with his scenes with Duke. But the character that gets just about as much focus as Billie is Billie's father Howard. It's a challenging role, one where the character is very wishy washy, changing his opinion a number of times throughout the movie. Jim Backus, while a talented comic actor, wisely doesn't play the role for broad laughs most of the time. He makes Howard at heart a nice guy, though one who clearly hasn't thought things through completely. This complements the character's writing, like when Howard blurts out, "So do I!" when Billie wishes she was a boy, hurting her. He hurts her again later when he absent-mindedly calls her "son" when she's at a point where she's struggling with her identity and growing relationship with Mike. But even though Howard makes mistakes such as those, we always have at every point hope that at the end he will smarten up and fully embrace his young daughter for whatever path she decides she will take. Backus could have made this character coarse and frustratingly stubborn, but instead makes him likable despite his obvious faults.

As you can see, there are a number of things to like about the movie Billie. In fact, there's a part of me that wants to give it a recommendation. However, there's a larger part of me that must acknowledge some serious faults, faults that are significant enough that they hurt the movie severely. Some of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of director Don Weis. While I was watching the movie, I came up with a theory as to Weis' background, and researching him after the movie, I proved I was correct - Weis' directorial career was mostly in television. This explains why I felt the movie had a very dated sitcomish feeling to it, from the unconvincing sets to the way the actors and the action were positioned and moved throughout. He does give that aforementioned dance sequence midway through the movie a lot of energy, but he seems hopeless during the three or so song numbers at other points in the movie. (Yes, this is a musical of sorts.) Though to be fair to Weis, the songs are pretty bad. I am also sympathetic to Weis by the fact that the screenplay, while written to be a comedy of sorts, simply isn't that funny. It should have been escalating lunacy, but that's never the case. When Howard's rival for mayor, for example, learns that Howard's secretly married daughter Jean is pregnant, does the town go crazy when the pregnancy is revealed? No - by that point Howard has learned of the marriage and immediately tells the town about it, and the whole issue is promptly forgotten about. With the screenplay hesitant to go plum crazy, Weis has to try and liven things up by adding tired comic clichés like repeatedly showing Billie's dog's "comic" reactions to "hilarious" incidents. However, I feel I should point out that when this so-called comedy has incidents of "dramatic relief" - occasional serious moments, in other words - Weis surprisingly manages to find a foothold and manages to pull things off. Serious moments such as Billie and Mike's building relationship, or Howard's struggle to accept his eccentric daughter, actually have some real power, thanks not only to the writing but the performers. While watching scenes such as those, I could not help but wonder what the movie would have been like had it been done mostly or completely seriously. As it is, we have some talented performers with interesting characters, but not the right environment to properly guide them.

(Posted June 18, 2017)

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See also: High School Hellcats, Hot Summer, Making The Grade

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