A favorite little-known Patty Duke film sandwiched innocuously between her Oscar-winning turn in The Miracle Worker (1962) and the near career-killing ignominy of Valley of the Dolls (1967)—the movie which has become, most assuredly, THE film she’ll be most remembered for—is Billie: a sprightly, featherweight teen musical about a tomboyish track and field dynamo struggling with gender-identity issues.
|Patty Duke as Billie Carol|
|Jim Backus as Howard G. Carol|
|Jane Greer as Agnes Carol|
|Warren Berlinger as Mike Benson|
I won't kid you, the above description, as brief as it is, makes Billie sound considerably more substantial than it is. Point in fact, clocking in at brisk 87 minutes, Billie is so lightweight it’s barely there. This teen-culture tidbit (filmed in a swift 15 days!) feels like an expanded TV sitcom episode. Filmed just before the start of the third and final season of her weekly series The Patty Duke Show (1963 - 1966), Billie was made to capitalize on Duke's considerable TV visibility as a teen sensation, and newfound popularity as a recording artist (Billie was released while Duke's first single "Don't Just Stand There" was still in the top 40). And although the movie is the kind of breezy affair ideal for a summer Drive-In playoffs alongside the lucrative Beach Party musicals, Billie came out in the fall of 1965 to better take advantage of the crossover publicity opportunities afforded by the start of the new TV season (like having Duke sing one of the songs from Billie "Funny Little Butterflies" on an episode of her own show as well as on the teen variety show Shindig).
But even back then, audiences must have gleaned that Billie was less a motion picture than a TV sitcom padded out to feature film length with musical numbers and what easily has to be 15-minutes worth of reaction-shot cutaways to Clown, the expressive family sheepdog.
As is so often the case with '60s sitcoms, the plot of Billie hinges on a single, silly gimmick. In this instance, instead of talking horses, mothers reincarnated as automobiles, or identical twin cousins, we have an average teenager who, thanks to a bit of a mind flip called “the beat”—the ability to hear a rhythm in her head and transfer that percussive tempo into athletic prowess—is able to outrun, out jump, and outperform every male member of her high-school track team.
|Billie's got the Beat!|
(more accurately, Patty Duke's got a running platform attached to the back of a camera truck)
If you're scratching your head wondering how, unless the story is set in Downton Abbey, a feature film’s worth of comic/dramatic conflict can be wrung from a non-issue like a female athlete in 1965; it helps to know that Billie is adapted from a wheezy 1952 stage play by Ronald Alexander titled Time Out for Ginger, and, save for the substituting of track & field for the play’s intergender football premise, makes it to the screen with its outmoded sexual politics intact. It also helps to know that as contrived as the plot sounds, in real life, athletic programs for girls were a very low priority in many high schools in America before Federal sex discrimination laws were passed in 1972.
The plot of Billie has Mayoral candidate Howard Carol (Backus) residing in a house full of women, yet runs his political campaign on a “Return to Gentility” anti-women’s-rights platform. Agnes (Greer), his long-suffering wife, is one of those wisely sardonic housewives typical of '60s sitcoms: she's genuinely smarter than her husband, but regularly defers to his oafishness out of love and an understanding of the fragility of the male ego. Eldest daughter Jean (Susan Seaforth) is the ultra-femme apple of her father's eye and the veritable poster girl for non-threatening '60s womanhood. Not only does she look exactly like a younger version of her mother, but at age 20 she wants nothing more from life than to quit college, marry, and get down to the business of making babies. Remarkably, goals her character has already achieved by the time she’s introduced.
|That Girl's Ted Bessell and Days of Our Lives' Susan Seaforth-Hayes |
contribute to Billie's large cast of recognizable TV faces
This leaves 15-year-old Billie (Duke), a self-professed “lonely little in-between” wrestling with puberty and grappling with anxiety over her gender identification (not sexually. At least not yet. At 15 she's merely an outdoorsy, athletic girl showing little interest in what girls are "supposed" to be interested in 1965). Billie's feelings of otherness are compounded by sensing she is also a disappointment to her father by falling just outside of what he ideally wants in an offspring. Liking his women traditional and old-fashioned, he clearly favors Billie's pretty and feminine older sister. But he also lets it known that he longed to have a son. And in this painful exchange, accidentally lets slip how he really feels about his youngest female offspring:
Father- “From now on, try to remember that you’re a girl!”
Billie- “I wish I was a boy…”
Father- “So do I, but you’re not!”
Ouch! I understand the title for the sequel is: Time Out for Therapy.
When Billie is later recruited by the high school track coach (“…to shame the boys into trying harder”), her newfound notoriety as the team’s most valuable player not only threatens to alienate her sweet but chauvinist potential suitor Mike Benson (Warren Berlinger) but also derail her reluctantly supportive father’s run for mayor. What's a girl who wishes she was a boy to do?
|"I should have been a boy, but here I am a girl!"|
Billie decides to throw herself a Pity Party and sings
"Lonely Little In-Between" to her stuffed animals
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Unless, like me, you're a nostalgia-prone boomer who grew up on white-bread, middle-class, suburban family comedies of the '60s and nursed a prepubescent crush on cute-as-a-button Patty Duke, you're apt to find Billie's contrived plot and dated sexual politics more trying than entertaining.
True to its genre origins and obviously tight shooting schedule, Billie is a movie devoid of visual style and is as straightforward as moviemaking gets. The cinematography records the action and makes sure everyone remains within the frame and stays in focus. The editing is of the ping-pong variety, cutting back and forth to medium shots of whoever is talking. There's not even much to say about the acting either, as the cast of TV and movie veterans all deliver professional, wholly serviceable, competent performances of their sketchily written characters.
Given all this, you might wonder what it is that I actually enjoy about Billie.
Well, it comes down to the fact that each time I revisit it, its surface simplicity begins to look more complex.
Like a great many family-oriented films that haven’t aged particularly well (particularly those that peddled conformity, tradition, and gender role rigidity in a propagandist fashion) Billie has evolved over the years into one of those cult-worthy, meta-movies that, when viewed through the prism of contemporary mores, can't help but operate on several different levels simultaneously. Most of them, inadvertent. All of them more interesting than the film as originally conceived.
|The simplistic gender politics of Billie are either/or. |
You're either a track star or a girl...you can't be both
One level of Billie is a high-school musical and puberty allegory about a tomboy teetering on the brink of womanhood who bristles at having to fit into society's narrow definition of femaleness. On another level, Billie operates as an insincere social-conflict farce that pays lip service to women's equality, yet in its heart really believes that men and women are just happier occupying traditional gender roles. Then there's Billie as a "very special episode" of the ABC Afterschool Special about a transgender male teen struggling with internally identifying as male while outwardly presenting as female (the most persuasive layer for me). And finally, Billie operates on a level that is like a "be yourself" Glee episode about the growing pains of a latent lesbian high-school track star (Duke's resemblance to Ellen Degeneres adding yet another layer).
One potential unexplored level is one that mental health advocate Patty Duke would likely attest to as uncannily in character with the trend of her early career and its real-life parallels in living with bipolarism. In her memoirs, Duke references how often she was cast as characters dueling with opposing, contradictory natures.
Thanks to the availability of The Patty Duke Show on DVD, I've had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with what a charming and natural comedienne Patty Duke can be. Her Patty Lane may not have been as glamorous as the teens Elinor Donahue (Father Knows Best) and Shelley Fabares (The Donna Reed Show) played on their respective shows, but what Duke lacked in adolescent elan she more than made up for in likeability and energy. (Patty Lane was quite the scrappy little toughie. Episodes highlighting her character’s selfish, bossy side show signs of a budding Neely O’Hara.)
|Boyish Warren Berlinger was 27 years old to Duke's 18. The athletic field used in Billie is at|
John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, Ca. Recognizable to fans of Grease as Rydell High.
The talented Patty Duke is undeniably the glue holding Billie together (She co-produced. The film is credited to Chrislaw/Patty Duke Productions. Chrislaw being the Peter Lawford-headed production company responsible for The Patty Duke Show), but her trademark vitality feels strangely subdued and the film doesn't always make the most of her talents. Saddled with a character who spends the majority of the film feeling wounded, confused, or bewildered, Duke is left shouldering all of the film’s dramatic weight (which she handles capably), a lot of its singing (Duke's real voice gets a healthy assist from Lesley Gore-style overdubbing), some of its dancing (as with her track scenes, doubles are occasionally used), but very little of the film's comedy. Granted, there really isn't that much to go around.
Regrettably or fortunately--depending on your fondness or antipathy toward the character actors in question--the lion's share of Billie's comedy falls to the supporting cast. Represented by a bevy of TV-familiar faces, these actors are great but provide no surprises. Each is cast to give the same stock comedy schtick they've delivered on sitcom after sitcom for years.
|Clockwise from top left: Richard Deacon, Dick Sargent, Charles Lane, |
and Billy De Wolfe. If you've ever seen any of these actors before,
you already know what you're getting from them in in Billie
I must admit that the pleasure of having the great Jane Greer appear in Billie (one of the all-time great film noir femme fatales: Out of the Past and The Big Steal) is mitigated significantly by seeing her lethal brand of smoldering insouciance reduced to playing the placatingly sweet housewife to a blowhard husband. Jim Backus' character is just the kind of chauvinist sap one of Greer's film noir incarnations would have tossed into the trunk of a car sent hurtling off a cliff without batting an eyelash.
|Strong female characters of the sort Jane Greer built her career on in the 1940s were almost nowhere to be found by the 1960s. I suspect it was difficult for mature actresses to be cast as anything BUT housewives during this time.|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Between Billie's rote comedy complications and contrived misunderstandings, I'm always able to console myself with the dancing. Having grown up watching TV musical variety shows targeting the teenage crowd like Shindig and Hullabaloo, the numbers in Billie resonate as welcome nostalgia.
Choreographed by Elvis/Beach Party movie stalwart David Winters in that curiously self-mocking, frenetic style that looks like a hybrid of '60s go-go and traditional musical comedy jazz (popularized in Broadway shows like Promises, Promises and Applause), these numbers are lively and a great deal of fun in their unabashed silliness.
Making her film debut (and serving as the film's co-choreographer) is A Chorus Line's Donna McKechnie, showing impeccable form in the red-and-white rugby stripes. She, along with director/mentor Michael Bennett, were dancers on the teen variety show, Hullabaloo. Several of the dancers in Billie are recognizable from '60s-era films like West Side Story and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. A triple-bill of Bye Bye Birdie, Billie, and The Cool Ones would serve as a terrific primer on the effect pop music had on contemporary choreography.
The robust and amusing musical number "The Girl is a Girl is a Girl" is one of my favorites. Wittily staged in a high-school locker room, the rousing routine features lots of chorus boys dancing with each other while adopting (none too convincingly) macho attitudes and extolling the virtues of the fairer sex. The song includes the lyric "And who can complain when she looks so terrific in shorts?"
Looking at this scene, I'd say that's a male-gaze pendulum that swings both ways.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
While it's hard to imagine that Billie did Patty Duke's reputation as an Oscar-winning actress any good, I think it's fair to say it didn't do it much harm, either. In fact, I was surprised to learn that Billie was actually a modest hit when it came out.
Patty Duke's managers (about whom much has been written) obviously had a vested interest in milking Duke's teenage appeal for as long as they could, so putting her in a disposable pop confection like this must have appeared, if perhaps a bit short-sighted (Duke was fast approaching adulthood), nevertheless expedient and profitable. Personally, I would love to have seen her take on Inside Daisy Clover (released the same year as Billie), a film not only better suited to her talents, but one which might have eased her into adult roles a little more gracefully than Valley of the Dolls.
I Love Melvin.
As much as I enjoy this movie, the enduring popularity of Ronald Alexander's play, Time Out for Ginger, truly baffles me. At various times in its revival history, the play has attracted the talents of Liza Minnelli and Steve McQueen! Go figure. As far as I'm concerned, it's Patty Duke, the '60s music, the dancing, and the time-acquired abstract levels of camp and multiple interpretations that make Billie's thoroughly run-of-the-mill plot even remotely bearable.
By the way, for the benefit of any Rosemary's Baby fans out there, playwright Ronald Alexander is also the author of Nobody Loves an Albatross.
By the way, for the benefit of any Rosemary's Baby fans out there, playwright Ronald Alexander is also the author of Nobody Loves an Albatross.
Watch Jack Benny in a 60-minute TV adaptation of Time Out for Ginger from 1955 HERE