Monday, October 14, 2013

Billie: How we've changed, continued

Old movie time! As I've said before, some movies instruct us in great detail about how far we've come as women, since they almost seem like they came from another planet. One such movie is BILLIE (1965), starring a major DEAD AIR heroine, Oscar winner and former union president, wonderful Patty Duke.

I grew up with Patty, adore her without reservations, read her book (needless to say) and watched a bushel of her movies and various TV-guest appearances, including the bad ones like MARCUS WELBY. (Marcus Welby?!?!?--say the kids in one voice. Who?) And as the list here makes clear, THAT IS A WHOLE LOTTA VIEWING, MY FRIENDS!

Young folks mostly know Duke (if they know her at all) as the mother of Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin or from the camp classic, Valley of the Dolls, wherein she ferociously chewed the scenery as Neely O'Hara, a character too-obviously based on Judy Garland. (Everybody in the film chewed the scenery, okay? Not just Patty! PS: I loved the pulpy novel too!) The film is widely regarded as one of the worst ever made, and therefore terribly watchable... and it also went down in 60s pop-history because one of the lead actresses was subsequently butchered by the Manson family.

I first saw Patty when I was a wee thing, on BEN CASEY (another TV-doctor you never heard of) and I followed her faithfully forever after. Her weekly sitcom was essential viewing for us Barbie-obsessed little baby-boomer girls. (Although I now know she was miserable through it all, she never seemed unhappy.) We watched Patty's show and then excitedly talked about it the next day, all day long, sometimes acting out favorite scenes. She played a dual-role (Patty and her cousin Cathy), and there were lots of people who didn't even realize she was playing both roles. Patty was the American id, all emotions on the surface and totally unguarded (the TV-theme song explained: "Patty loves to rock 'n' roll, a hot dog makes her lose control!"), while Cathy was her "identical cousin"--the polite, ladylike British girl who knew how to behave. It was the internal drama then being fought by ALL OF US! We all wanted to be demure, sweet Cathy, and yet (at least in my working class neighborhood), we knew we were really extroverted, often-scheming Patty ... and hot dogs made us lose control. (Patty gobbled food, Cathy ate delicately and left some on her plate.)

As a child (age 12), Patty blew everyone away playing Helen Keller on Broadway in The Miracle Worker, and then again in the film version, for which she became (at the time) the youngest person to win an Oscar at age 16. The Broadway play ran for two years, which she wrote about in depth in her book, Call me Anna. She and Anne Bancroft (who played Annie Sullivan) actually became furious at each other. It was riveting; they had an extended, violent scene together (Annie Sullivan fighting hard to subdue Helen, who is having none of it) and they had to repeat this raucous physical battle every night on the stage. They started actually hurting each other, "getting even" with each other during the same scene the next night. It is amazing to read, and so very human. (Bancroft actually knocked one of Duke's teeth loose.) Duke finally went full circle, later in her life playing the Annie Sullivan role in the 1979 TV-version of The Miracle Worker, with Melissa Gilbert playing Keller. Duke had always wanted to play Sullivan, the "adult" in the story, and I just love the "recovery" aspect of that choice! Since the 80s, Duke has been a mental-health advocate, which has made me so happy. My grandmother used to sneer at her for going on talk shows and babbling like "a crazy bitch", and I would get so upset, I would cry about it. Leave Patty alone!!!

Later, we had words for that behavior: bi-polar disorder. But at the time? Everybody just talked about how crazy she was... and yes, she would meet people and marry them after partying with them for a week. (I repeatedly defended her as a tortured artist, but privately worried she was popping amphetamines, like my mother.) After learning of her diagnosis, I was very relieved that Patty would be staying with us for a long time. I had long worried she would jump off a bridge, take too much LSD or something. Of course I read all about her tumultuous personal life in the cast-off movie-magazines I discovered in the magical room at the paper-mill (mentioned in #14 here). I sent her autobiography to my AA sponsor and she was the subject of a whole nother round of discussions. So, I learned from Patty as a girl and as a grown-up.

And now, I learn from her yet again, as I dissect her old movie BILLIE.


I saw BILLIE as a kid, and remembered it as being about a tomboy trying to femme it up for a boy she develops a crush on. And yes, it surely IS, but it now seems far more insidious and awful in its mid-60s har-har-har misogyny than I ever remembered. (I sometimes wonder what it did to me, mindlessly ingesting this kind of thing during my formative years. Yighhhh! Terrifying to contemplate.)

BILLIE is FAR WORSE than the nice girl/hell-raiser dichotomy we ate up on weekly installments of THE PATTY DUKE SHOW. For example, one line intended to be funny, Billie/Patty whines, "I wish I was a boy!" and Jim Backus, her dad, barks back, "Well, so do I, but you're not!"--something like that. Just awful. The movie is about Jim Backus (whom you know as the voice of Mr Magoo or the redoubtable Thurston Howell the III) running for mayor of Anywhere, USA, and he has assured the town conservatives that females should never compete with males... and then the track team coach asks super-fast Billie (at left) to be on the team. (It is understood that this means THE BOYS TEAM, since at that time, there WERE no girls teams.) HORRORS! This might cost her dad the election (!) and Jim Backus/Thurston Howell tries to make her quit the team.

It goes without saying that Billie falls in love with a boy on the team, who is not as fast as SHE is... and the feminist good news is, by the end of the movie, our young prince doesn't mind that Billie can beat him at sports. But it is only since she has properly feminized herself (finally all dolled up in high-school-dance drag, wearing a short dress and heels) and has also given him her HEART, that this is so. An interesting, and very lucidly-presented message about heterosexual romance TAMING the dangerous demon that is women careening about on sports teams and so forth: As long as they are fuckable, cute and know their place, it's okay. Even if she is a famous television star!

There is actually a short blog on the movie, called Billie's got the Beat. It would appear this is ALSO a cult movie now. (shudders)

Long live Patty! We love you!


JoJo said...

She's awesome I agree. She was in another movie w/ Melissa Gilbert several years back, which name escapes me. Melissa's character finds out she's adopted and goes in search of her birth mother, who is Patty. She finds out that she's the product of a rape, something Patty's character struggled to bury deep in her memory and forget, but they end up becoming close and helping each other deal with all the emotions. It was quite good.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Jojo, in 80 years there have only been three women presidents of the Screen Actors Guild: Kathleen Nolan (Kate on "The Real McCoys"), Patty Duke and Melissa Gilbert. :)