The 1960s pop tune that became an early gay movie
In 1967 the song "Ode To Billie Joe" captured the imagination of the American public. Written and performed by Mississippi native Bobbie Gentry, "Ode To Billie Joe" posed the question: why did Billie Joe McAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge, a real location in rural Mississippi?
"Ode To Billie Joe" offered unusually strong lyrics for a pop tune. The song is set at the female narrator's dinner table, where the young girl's family questions why Billie Joe killed himself as they engage in mundane dinner table conversation: "Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits please…"
Listeners never do find out why Billie Joe jumped off the bridge, though Gentry does reveal that the narrator continues to make pilgrimages to the bridge so she can throw flowers off of it into the muddy waters below.
"Ode To Billie Joe" stood out as a haunting, almost ghostly Southern Gothic tale of madness and death. The song rose to number 1 on the pop charts and garnered several Grammy Awards for Gentry, who was then 25 years old.
Ten years later "Ode To Billie Joe" was adapted into a film. Robby Benson, then a teen idol, starred as Billy Joe McAllister – the spelling of the character's first name was changed to the more traditional Billy for the film. Glynnis O'Connor, at the time Benson's girlfriend, was cast as Bobbie Lee Hartley, the song's unnamed narrator. The couple had previously co-starred in "Jeremy" (1973), a popular teen romance of the era.
When Bobbie Gentry met with screenwriter Herman Raucher, she told him that "Ode To Billie Joe" was based on a true-life incident from her hometown, admitting that she had no idea why Billie Joe had jumped off the bridge. This gave Raucher a great deal of leeway in creating the film's storyline. What Raucher came up with is a sad, heartfelt reminder of how bad things were for LGBT people during the generations which preceded ours.
"Ode To Billy Joe" was released to theaters on June 4, 1976. The film took viewers back to a sweltering hot Mississippi summer in 1953, where the adorably nerdy Billy Joe is "courting" Bobbie Lee. She feigns disinterest, though it soon becomes apparent that she's falling for her goofy "gentleman caller."
Throughout the film, Raucher drops hints of what is to come. After a night of drunken partying, Billy Joe's buddies take him to a "house of ill repute." His friends eagerly dive into the pleasures which the house offers. Billy Joe, by contrast, not only seems disinterested, he appears to be genuinely frightened.
Eventually the audience finds out what it is that terrifies him.
"Something bad happened, Bobbie Lee," he said late one night. "Something real bad."
The distraught Billy Joe admits that he had spent the night with another man. The following morning his dead body is found floating in the river beneath the bridge. Ten years after "Ode To Billie Joe" sold millions of records, Gentry's audience found out why Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge: he was ashamed of being gay.
Bobbie Lee kept his secret. As the film draws to a close, she helps to spread a false rumor that she's pregnant with Billy Joe's baby--better to be known for the sin of premarital sex than for the gravest sin of all: homosexuality.
"Ode To Billy Joe" was a hit. Produced for $1.1 million, it took in $27 million at the U.S. box office. The film was typical of how gay characters were presented in 1976. Though there was a visibly out community by that time, society's views on homosexuality had not yet begun to change. If seen at all, gay characters were either the butt of homophobic jokes or self-loathing individuals who could not accept who they were. It would be another decade, with the release of films like "Torch Song Trilogy" in 1988, that LGBT moviegoers would be able to see positive representations of themselves on the screen.
Robbie Benson gave a superb performance as Billy Joe. He's quite effective in conveying the anguish and yearning of a young man who's horrified at the realization of his gay desires.
Glynnis O'Connor steals the movie as Bobbie Lee, a young woman who loses her innocence and, unlike the adults around her, grows as a person when she makes the extraordinary decision to keep Billy Joe's "horrible" secret. Billy Joe goes to his watery grave a frightened child, but it's Bobbie Lee who abandons her childhood and becomes a woman. The scene where she leaves town to hide her "shame" is an emotional punch in the gut.
"Ode To Billy Joe" the movie has been somewhat forgotten. It offers a powerful look into the ultra-conservative, often oppressive world of the Deep South, and stands as a worthy companion piece to Bobbie Gentry's unforgettable and still highly regarded classic. The film is available on DVD.