the predictable solution to a death
by Douglas Messerli
Herman Raucher (screenwriter, based on “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry), Max Baer, Jr. (director) Ode to Billy Joe / 1976
It’s somewhat frightening to think that if you were to ask a noted Hollywood screenwriter like Herman Raucher (writer of highly successful pre-pic novel and film Summer of ’42) to imagine a back story to Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit song “Ode to Billie Joe,” that he might rather quickly arrive at the plot of this film, Ode to Billy Joe (1976). Let me remind you, as does the film, of the first few stanzas.
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door, "Y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said, "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas
"Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please
There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow"
And Mama said it was a shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
He put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie. You know, it don't seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
Mama said to me, "Child, what's happened to your appetite?
I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
Certainly we have established in the song that the girl is singing that she had some sort of relationship with the suicidal boy Billy Joe, and, given that she suddenly has no appetite at dinner, that his act truly means something to her that it apparently doesn’t to rest of the family. Indeed she’s been seen quite recently with the boy, and observed in what appears to be an odd act—“throwing somethin’” off the bridge—that might lead us to believe that they had a relationship and that the unnamed balladeer may know more about the boy’s death that she’s saying.
In Raucher and director Max Baer Jr.’s retelling of the tale, the two figures, who become the teenagers Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson) and Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynnis O'Connor) in the film Ode to Billy Joe (Gentry reportedly argues that the spelling of “Billie” was a typo in the original) they indeed do have a relationship, Billy Joe trying desperately to “court” the young 15-year old girl and encourage her to have sex with him. The location is the Mississippi back country of the late 1950s where the Hartley family does not even have indoor plumbing and where Bobbie Lee, dressed up in lovely dresses for church each weekend, is not even allowed “gentlemen callers”—a word right out of playwright Tennessee Williams’ lexicon, into which this film often dips—might certainly be, given her early maturity, longing for sexual contact. And since in real life, Gentry admitted that she had never met the legendary Billy Joe of her ballad, Raucher obviously felt free to imagine what these young people might be feeling and how it could relate to the boy’s ultimate suicide.
Indeed, most of this film is spent of developing, quite convincingly, the young teenager’s growing relationship while around them her parents (Joan Hotchkis and Sandy McPeak) and brother James (Terence Goodman) who works at the sawmill with Billy Joe behave in ways morally and sometimes reprehensibly the way adults generally do behave.
These two young people speak far more cleverly and assuredly than you might imagine a 15-year old girl and a 17 -or 18-year old boy might be capable of. Raucher is brilliant when it comes to the sexual bluff that young boys often present on the outside, while within they are frightened and often clueless. The early conversation between the two I’ve noted below will have to serve as an example of the heightened language of love these Romeo and Juliet wannabees express:
Billy Joe: Hey! I been holdin’ up this bridge here for maybe an hour or more
awaitin’ a for you.
Bobbie Lee: Right neighborly of you Mr. McAllister.
Billy: You know I could charge you maybe a half a dollar for my efforts.
Bobbie: Ain’t worth but a quarter. Whole bridge ain’t worth but a quarter.
Billy: [grabbing hold of her] Bobbie Lee, I want to talk to you.
Bobbie: [pulling away] Don’t you, let me be. I’m 15 years of age. You may
think that’s old. But my pappa sees me nothing but as a child.
Billy: Well your pappa is clearly behind the times.
Bobbie: But he is also on the porch.
Billy: Does your pappa also know that you been sportin’ a brasserie for at
least to years I known of.
Bobbie: That ain’t the same one. The first one was a trainer. I’m up to a 32
now, B cup I believe.
Billy: Well, I believe you’re gonna be a 96 and tripping all over yourself
‘for your pappa let’s you out of his sight.
Bobbie: If I was a 96 I’d not be out of anyone’s sight.
Suddenly their conversation turns to their earlier childhood friendship and a discussion of her long-time imaginary friend, Benjamin, the fact which Bobbie Lee is embarrassed that Billy Joe has brought up.
“Benjamin,” she responds, “is a childhood invention of mine to help pass the time and give me someone to talk to besides cows. And you are cruel to be talking about him since I only told you in a moment of weakness.”
Billy Joe cheekily answers: “Well, there’s gonna come a time young lady when your little old Benjamin ain’t gonna do you any good. So I’m hereby volunteering my services as his official replacement.”
If this antiphon between two kids echoing the refrains of writers such as Carson McCullers and Truman Capote seems a bit far-fetched, both Benson and O’Connor deliver the lines so charmingly and believably that we hardly question the various subjects—mock chivalry, parental control, sexual maturation, childhood fantasies, and the status of their future relationship—that their playful conversation invokes. For both of them their flirtation is entirely a linguistic bluff condensed from the language of Southern literature, romantic potboilers, and the expressions of their local dialect.
And, as we might suspect, their courting, filled with this kind of humorous intimacy and, later, even more passionate implorations, will lead eventually to Bobbie Lee’s rebellion against her caring father’s restrictions and her gradual acceptance of Billy Joe’s sexual advances, particular when, after a country musical celebration held at the sawmill he goes missing for several days before showing up in the woods near where she is brooding on his absence.
Like Shakespeare’s lovers they finally engage in a sexual encounter. meeting at the bridge. There, by accident he claims, he tosses her doll “Benjamin” into the water, symbolically proving he is now read to take over as he long-ago promised. Perhaps not surprisingly, it does not end well, however, for the impassioned and over-eager young man who can’t apparently get properly aroused when he finally is permitted to fulfill his fantasies.
But certainly, we can well understand, when a day later Billy Joe’s body shows up in the river that in the small town world of this Mississippi back land that folks might gossip about the connection between his death and his obvious lust for the innocent Hartley girl. In such small worlds, there is little else of importance to talk about but sex, death, and intruders to their isolated world. And Raucher’s friendly neighbors have every right to imagine that Bobbie Lee might be pregnant and the careless tadpole of a boy terrified of the complications that his acts have wrought.
Yet, as any screenwriter would perceive that to have the central figure of your narrative to suddenly do himself in because he impregnated his girlfriend puts the whole story into jeopardy. Surely no one can feel much sympathy any longer for such a coward. In the film, her brother and others seem to expect that she will disappear for a day or so and take care of the situation. I wonder, with the increasing restrictions in just that state against abortion these days, what they might expect a 15-year-old girl to do? The brother himself notes how much shame has already been cast upon her parents, stripped of their church duties and faced with the loss of many of their previous friends.
In any event, those actions would transform the earlier delight we felt in the characters into a bitter reminiscence of the dangers of young sex and turn Gentry’s mournful ballad into something like an angry dirge.
Moreover, as I’ve already suggested we’ve been privy to the fact that their first sexual experience turned out, like so very many first sexual encounters, to be unsuccessful. If Billy Joe is pregnant, the plot has failed to present us with enough of the story to make it credible or would have to take its viewers into even deeper waters. The film, on the other hand, was a true box-office success.
As I suggested in my first sentence of
this essay, Raucher, however, quickly perceived a
Certainly, we might argue that we’ve had no clue about this possibility in the plot, except that if we watched carefully we would know we were mistaken; for earlier on when the boss comes upon his employees, two of them, Bobbie Lee’s brother and his friend playing their harmonicas in practice for the upcoming musical celebration, Billy Joe remains hard a work in the background. The camera stares over the loafers’ shoulders to observe Robby Benson’s thin sweat-drenched chest and mid-riff for several seconds, matching up with the eye of the boss to whom they are speaking.
It might have been rape, which also could have sent any young innocent from the iron girdle of the Tallahatchie Bridge, but our movie also tells us that it’s not the case. Even though Bobbie Lee assures her failed lover that at another time his sexual performance with her will be different, he shakes his head in disbelief. Although even Barksdale suggests to him—so he reports—this may be his only homosexual act, the boy knows different. Apparently he has enjoyed the pleasure that his upbringing taught him to be an unnatural act worthy of self-destruction. It’s clear he realizes its not simply something that he will grow out of.
But she is now a woman, no longer an innocent and has carefully thought it all out. Even if she never bears a baby, the gossips will presume she snuck out one night to have it taken care of. His admission of his involvement, she argues, will only get him arrested and, furthermore, destroy any legendary status that Billy Joe has now attained, the only thing that might sustain his memory. No, she argues, it is best for her to go away. As she reminds her rival for Billy Joe’s love, she’s still 15, what does she know of the world?; sooner or later she’ll have to come back.
We all know that far too many young boys, when faced with the truth that this fictional Billy Joe was, find death the only solution. But to imagine that reality for an unknown figure whose unexplained leap into the waters is heralded in a popular song is very close to an expression of homophobia. “He must have been gay to do such an explicable thing” is a truism that I hope will soon disappear from our ridiculous game of “clues” to suicidal death.
Los Angeles, August 13, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021).