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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Buster and Billie (1974) review

Jan Michael Vincent (Buster Lane), Pamela Sue Martin (Margie Hooks), Clifton James (Jake), Robert Englund (Whitey), Joan Goodfellow (Billie Jo Truluck) 

Directed by Daniel Petrie

The Short Version: Having seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth, BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974), a genre-defying coming of age tale set in rural Georgia 1948, has been both rescued, and restored from its original internegative. Now, those who saw this atypical motion picture back in '74 can relive the experience; and those who will see this curiously uncomfortable movie for the first time can see a type of film you'll never see again. Largely a Romance-Drama, B&B doesn't necessarily fit into a specific genre, It's more a look into the lives of flawed characters and all the pent-up frustrations, libidinous desires, love and rage loosed in the film's 99 minutes, culminating in a cheerless coda. Bolstered by excellent performances and striking cinematography, BUSTER AND BILLIE is a love story; and one where everybody lives unhappily ever after.
In a rural Georgia town in 1948, Buster is the most popular young man in high school; engaged to be married to his sweetheart, Margie Hooks. However, he feels there's something missing in their relationship; and not just that Margie won't have sex with him before they're married. Soon, Buster becomes curious about Billie Jo Truluck, a quiet, introverted gal with zero self-esteem whom the boys in town view as an "easy lay".  Like Buster, she too wants something more in life. She wants legitimate acceptance. Initially wanting nothing more than to satisfy his own libidinous desires, Buster soon falls in love with Billie Jo, and she falls in love with him. This doesn't sit well with the town, Buster's fiance, his parents, and especially Buster's circle of friends who no longer have access to their outlet of gratification. What began as true love turns to tragedy where the lives of these young teenagers are changed forever.

BUSTER AND BILLIE is a unique, long-thought lost movie set among a small rural community in 1948 Georgia. At its heart, it's a Romance-Drama; a coming-of-age feature about young teens discovering themselves and each other; and all the fragile egos, life-altering decisions, broken dreams, betrayals, love and tragedy that unspools along the way.

The picture's three-tiered structure essentially makes the movie almost unclassifiable. The first quarter feels like an 80s-style teen sex comedy, with its light-hearted tone and crude language. Then the film settles on being a romantic drama, focusing on the title lovers and their burgeoning romance. Finally, things take an abrupt, eyebrow-raisingly dark turn in the last twenty minutes.

BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974) is one of those obscure movies you've heard about over the years; a film surrounded in mystique and mild controversy. In the case of Daniel Petrie's movie, that mystique is in his film's lack of availability... until now. The level of contention seems to be centered around a surprisingly frank shot of male frontal nudity; and then there's the shockingly abrupt violence of the film's aforementioned finale.

Actually, there's a lot of nudity in the film; more than you'd normally find in a romance picture. But then, Petrie's movie transcends the traditional 'Boy Meets Girl' scenario. Aside from the nudity, there's A LOT of crudely comical language of a sexual nature that makes BUSTER AND BILLIE seem like it's foreshadowing the teen sex comedies that would surface several years later. Here, it's in the form of a bunch of horny high schoolers gathering in the bathroom or elsewhere talking about the size of women's breasts; getting laid; the female form, etc.
Most movies in the 70s tried to outdo one another in making their endings as breathtakingly tragic as possible. With BUSTER AND BILLIE, you don't see it coming, and it won't be explicitly revealed here. Aside from the seemingly out-of-left-field finale, that Buster, the most popular guy in high school, gets with Billie, the frowned-upon, promiscuous, and ostracized gal in school, is an intriguing spin on the dramatic form. 
Buster is initially the beau of Margie (played by Pamela Sue Martin of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE LADY IN RED). Buster is the typical, hot-blooded American male; at that age where libido consumes every thought. Margie is a virgin who wishes to keep her purity intact till marriage even though she enjoys semi-naked romps in Buster's pick-up truck. Buster, though, doesn't wish to wait. There's minor moments where Vincent's performance displays nuances--where he's lost in thought, playing with a lighter, or a lamp--pondering that maybe Margie isn't right for him. 
Out of frustration, he decides to hook up with Billie Jo Truluck, a shy gal shunned by most everyone in the community due to her reputation for being "friendly" with all the boys. Initially, it is nothing more than him using her to satiate his sexual desire. But then he wants to see her again; and the two begin a gradual romance that leads to Buster breaking up with Margie (at 1 o'clock in the morning, no less). The scene where Buster and Billie Jo show up at church together, shocking everyone in town, is one of the film's funniest moments. It's also a sequence that inconspicuously foretells the film's gloomy finish.

Buster's friends are a motley clutch of boys who spend much of their time hiding an inability to associate with the opposite sex. They exaggerate to Buster about all the girls they've made it with. They all want to be like him but haven't any inclination as to the how. So they hide their lack of confidence and low self-esteem by way of the young Billie Jo Truluck, who has an even greater level of low self-worth. Her popularity with them is prominently displayed on the bathroom walls of the local high school. Once it becomes apparent she's no longer available to them, their fragile, immature egos are shattered and Billie must be taught a lesson in order to make them feel whole once again.

Buster's best friend is the teenage adolescent, Whitey. We never learn his real name, but he's so called due to his being an albino. Buster and Whitey have a tight bond; Buster is like a big brother to him. When Whitey accompanies Buster, his level of confidence is elevated. Without him, he's incompetent, child-like, and incapable of making logical decisions; particularly what transpires at the end. 

Jan Michael-Vincent is fantastic in the lead role. It was another peek into the greatness of a star that would ultimately collapse within himself. Vincent was akin to Burt Reynolds--he could do everything no matter the genre. Sadly, Vincent would allow his personal demons to destroy him. In a way, BUSTER AND BILLIE (1974) is as much about Jan Michael-Vincent's career trajectory as it is a doomed romance.
One of the many facets to his character is that he's similar to a typical jock-style character, but one with emotional layers. He's extremely loyal to his friends, and especially with the above-mentioned Whitey. Unlike his circle of friends, he knows how to love. He has many of the film's funniest lines that are crudely enlightening at times. Such as when Jake asks him why he doesn't go join his friends dropping by Billie Jo's place and Buster replies, "I'll tell ya', Jake. There's two things I think oughta be private... takin' a shit and gettin' laid."
Another moment is when he's taking up for Whitey in front of the school. Margie's best friend comments on him asking her out and how ugly he is. Buster takes great offense and quickly responds with, "When was the last time you won a beauty contest you hoot-owl lookin' bitch?!"
Memorable in virtually everything he appeared in, some of the man's highlights were co-starring with Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC (1972); the volcanic levels of machismo overflowing in VIGILANTE FORCE (1976); playing an aspiring stuntman with Burt Reynolds in HOOPER (1978), and in his most famous role as the pilot of AIRWOLF (1984-1987). There's a great biography about the man by David Grove that you can read a review for HERE.

The character of Billie is essayed by Joan Goodfellow in an almost silent performance. Her facial expressions do most of the talking. She never even smiles till Buster shows she no longer needs to lay on her back to feel like she fits in. A social misfit, you can see the boredom on her face during the moments she's being used by the emotionally ineffectual boys. You can also see the longing for something better in her face; her eyes looking away from the immature teen lying atop her, clutching her breast and deliriously murmuring, "I love you" like a little baby over and over again. 
Some of the best scenes between her and Vincent are when he gives her a few presents. Her reaction shows a young lady who's never been shown this level of appreciation, even from her isolated parents. Another scene is where Billie looks after a sick Buster, sitting by his bedside reading a comic book to him. And in another, the two lovers are anxious to catch a sunrise, sitting in a field covered in a blanket till the sun's rays break over the horizon. These are simple moments between two people who genuinely love one another. They are so simple it makes their reactions and their relationship seem all the more believable. 

A stage actress and singer, Goodfellow worked with director Petrie a few more times before halting her film and TV career in the early 1980s. Some of her other works include a similar hillbilly tragedy, LOLLY MADONNA XXX (1973) and SUNBURN (1979), starring Farrah Fawcett and Joan Collins; both for director Richard Sarafian.

The first role of Robert Englund, the future Freddy Krueger makes a grand first impression as Whitey while leaving no inclination of the horrors that lie ahead in his vast career. Englund would display a similar level of dramatic chops in movies like THE GREAT SMOKEY ROADBLOCK (1977) and as the timid alien Willie on V (1983), V: THE FINAL BATTLE (1984), and its single-season television series. Famous for his horror work and especially the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, some of those others include EATEN ALIVE (1976), GALAXY OF TERROR (1981), DEAD & BURIED (1981), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989), and THE MANGLER (1995) to name a few.

The director, Daniel Petrie, directed numerous TV movies and dozens of television episodes with a peppering of motion pictures on his resume. The 'R' rated material is vastly different from what is permissible on the small screen and Petrie seems more than comfortable handling it. Prior to BUSTER AND BILLIE Petrie directed the TV horror MOON OF THE WOLF (1972); the silly underwater SciFi hokum THE NEPTUNE FACTOR (1973); and about a decade later he did the thriller FORT APACHE, THE BRONX (1981) with Paul Newman, and the comedy SIX PACK (1982) with Kenny Rogers.

Aside from the performances, something else the film does incredibly well is in capturing late 40s Southern Americana with its wide expanse of rural locales; isolated farm land and dilapidated barns; picket fences, and old country roads. The man responsible for the cinematography was Italian Mario Tosi, DP of the underrated horror thriller THE KILLING KIND (1973), and the major league horror classic CARRIE (1976). The title theme is sung by Hoyt Axton. You'll remember him as the enterprising inventor of many failed innovations like The Bathroom Buddy in GREMLINS (1984).
The movie was reportedly a hit in its day, with most critics praising the performances but others taking issue with the nudity and unusual ending. The studio, though, didn't seem to care much about the movie, and was possibly integral to it falling into obscurity for decades. It's quite good, and a testament to the talents of those involved. Throw expectations out the window and prepare yourself for a comfortless conclusion. Instead of placing it within genre parameters, it works just fine as 100 minutes spent with your average, typically virile teens--some more troubled than others--growing up experiencing life (and death) in late 40s rural south.

Presumed lost and its negative destroyed for 40+ years, Zephina Media has magnificently restored this unique film from its original internegative, discovered in Sony's underground film vault. You can learn about its restoration and order a copy of the blu-ray HERE.
This review is representative of the Zephina Media/Metropolis Post bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1; running time: 01:39:09


hsc said...

Glad to read this thoughtful appreciation of BUSTER AND BILLIE and to hear that it's been restored for re-release after all these years!

There had been a VHS release of it in the mid-'80s, which is how I saw it years after its initial release, but it seemed to have totally dropped off the face of the earth after that.

The main reason that the film got overshadowed by the nudity in it is that PLAYBOY printed a full-frontal frame-grab of Jan-Michael Vincent in either that year's annual "Sex in Cinema" or "Sex Stars" feature that ran in the November and December issues.

It's hard to believe now when a mouse click can summon up a billion full-frontal selfies-- including famous guys you'd assume would know better-- but at the time that level of male exposure was so unusual that it became a topic of discussion. And unfortunately, it was frequently discussed in terms of "it must've been cold the day they filmed that scene."

Absent that one frame-grab in a big-circulation magazine, however, I don't think the nude scene would've drawn that much attention and the film might have been better appreciated for the qualities you discuss here. Hopefully, the re-release will lead to a wider re-evaluation.

This is a great blog! Keep up the excellent work!

venoms5 said...

Thanks for the kind words and adding the additional information! If I recall correctly, there was a similar uproar over Mickey Rourke in ANGEL HEART (1987).

AuntieM said...

Loved this film. I still have a VHS copy. Can't bring myself to toss it, but where can you find a video player anymore?

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