Southern Movie 23: “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

On the surface, the 1976 movie Ode to Billy Joe seems like a simple teenage love story set in rural Mississippi. However, there’s more to this movie. Based on the 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same name and directed by Max Baer, Jr. – the son of the famous boxer, but best known for playing Jethro Bodine in The Bevery Hillbillies – Ode to Billy Joe is built around a desperate secret that comes to stand between the otherwise ordinary young lovers, and it is that secret that leads Billy Joe McAllister to jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Set in 1953, Ode to Billy Joe begins when Bobbie Lee Hartley, a naive farmer’s daughter, is pursued sweetly and at first harmlessly by a slightly older boy named Billy Joe McAllister. Billy Joe is no longer in school and works at the local sawmill, and she informs him curtly that, since she is only 15, his charming advances won’t be received well by her papa. The story begins where it will end – on the Tallahatchie Bridge – as Billy Joe scuttles and skips along with the teenage girl who is walking home from her rural bus stop.  As we meet the two, they are as un-worldly as can be: Bobbie Lee talks to her imaginary friend Benjamin, and soon after this scene, Billy Joe finds himself unable to behave anything but awkwardly when he goes to the seedy night club with his friends. However, Bobbie Lee is outgrowing her father’s insistence that she remain a little girl and spends her quiet hours reading smutty stories from cheap magazines. Things are about to change.

After these introductions, the focus shifts to a subplot that involves a trio of local ne’er-do-wells who nearly run Bobbie Lee’s father Glenn off the bridge. Carrying a load of milk and eggs to market, the father and daughter come to the one-lane Tallahatchie Bridge at the same time as the truckload of drunken sots who declare that the farmer must back up and let them pass. Unfortunately, Glenn’s truck has no reverse. That fact and his pride lead him to order Bobbie Lee out of the truck, so he can ram the other truck off the bridge— with his load of breakables in back. She then stands by helplessly while her father’s truck sputters and stalls, and the wild young men win the two-bit battle by pushing him half-off the bridge. They drive away, and as Glenn and the truck hang precariously over the side, Bobbie Lee has to run get her brother James, who works nearby at the sawmill . . . with Billy Joe. The small crew of young men save her father from falling into the river below, but the truck is torn up, and a feud is now brewing.

Feeling emboldened by helping the Hartley family in their time of need, Billy Joe then approaches Bobbie Lee after church in full view of everyone. He has been warned, of course, that the apple of his eye is too young to date, but he makes his move anyway. Billy Joe’s intentions are now out in the open.

However, her papa Glenn will not yield so easily. Though Glenn is basically a kind, hard-working man, he has no intention of budging on the boundaries he has set for his daughter. Of course, that doesn’t stop Billy Joe from stomping up the dirt road with a fist full of flowers, an act that leads to a puppy-love wander in the woods. The relationship between the two teenagers is solidified, and Bobbie Lee is just as excited about the prospect of a boyfriend as she is about the prospect of her family having indoor plumbing!

It is what happens next that changes everything. The whole community has been looking forward to the big Okolona River Bottom Jamboree that’s coming up, and once we see the scene, we know why. There is music and drinking, foolishness and frolicking— the otherwise good, Christian community is going buck wild! Bobbie Lee’s brother James runs into the drunkards who tore up his father’s truck and kicks the hell out of them. On a side hallway, someone has even brought in prostitutes for the local men who are so inclined, and we see a wide-eyed, obviously frightened Billy Joe being led into that den of sin. But what happens . . . we don’t know.

The next day, the big party is over, but the drama is not. The local lawman comes around, with Billy’s Joe father, asking questions: some bad stuff went on the night before, and Billy Joe is missing. Unaware of what could have gone wrong, the whole town wonders where Billy Joe McAllister may be. And no one worries about him more than Bobbie Lee.

After three days of hiding in the woods, Billy Joe turns up, and he and Bobbie Lee have the necessary heart-to-heart. After some crying and pleading and big promises, Billy Joe admits that he has had sex with another man, a sin that he believes makes him unfit for a relationship of any kind. Even though Bobbie Lee wants to help him get past it, he will not accept any kindness, nor will he reveal the name of the other man involved. Billy Joe McAllister is inconsolably grief-stricken, and now we know what the song doesn’t tell us: why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

As Ode to Billy Joe comes to a close, Bobbie Lee is in a bad position. The community – her brother, in particular – believes that she is pregnant and that is why Billy Joe committed suicide. Responding in archetypal Southern fashion, the locals shun both the McAllisters and the Hartleys. Unwilling to reveal her dead lover’s secret, Bobbie Lee – a virgin who could not be pregnant – even remains silent during her angry brother’s tirade about how she should get an abortion.

Reconciled to her new position as a pariah, Bobbie Lee Hartley packs her suitcase and leaves home one sunny morning. To her surprise, as she crosses the Tallahatchie Bridge, she encounters Dewey Barksdale (played by James Best, well-known as Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.) Barkdale owns the sawmill where James, Billy Joe, and others worked, and he is walking to her family’s house to admit that he is the man who had sex with Billy Joe. When he learns that Bobbie Lee is running away, he asks her not to go, insisting that his confession will make things right, that it will become clear that she isn’t pregnant when people know the truth. However, after this peculiarly Deep Southern ordeal, Bobbie Lee has changed, and leaving is what she will do.

Ode to Billy Joe stands as one of the few films to deal directly with issues related to homosexuality in the Deep South. (The Children’s Hour and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are two others.) Where there have been many movies made about issues of race in the Deep South, depictions of the intolerance of same-sex relationships remain muted, appearing as undercurrents of this cultural norm that is an open secret. (For example, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the nature of Brick’s too-close relationship with his dead friend Skipper is never fully revealed.) In this film, Billy Joe is so immediately and thoroughly repulsed by his own actions that he regards himself as no longer fit to participate in human society. After we see their town’s reaction to assumptions about an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock, we know why Billy Joe might have anticipated their reaction to he and Dewey Barksdale having sex.

Back in the summer of 1976, when the movie was new, the reviews were not so hot. Famed critic Roger Ebert gave it a lukewarm review, though The New York Times‘ review was not even that kind:

‘Ode to Billy Joe’ is a movie to lament. Its authors have ruined it. To say so is praise as well as regret. You can only ruin something that has some quality to begin with . . .

The problem, which reviewers alluded to, was that the song was so haunting and alluring because it withheld the reason that Billy Joe jumped— and the movie takes that mystery away!

As a document that portrays life in the Deep South in the mid-1950s though, Ode to Billy Joe has some degree of success. Its Mississippi backdrop avoids anachronisms and misnomers with reasonably accurate details: rural schooling and bus routes, the hardships of inadequate roads and bridges, a conservative culture that has church at the center of social life, the much-anticipated annual festival, and the arrival of modern conveniences like indoor plumbing. And certainly the movie’s title character is correct that, in 1953, rural Protestant evangelicals would have seen his same-sex one-night stand as nothing other than a sinful transgression, an attitude that hasn’t changed much in the Deep South in the six decades since.

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