Monday, May 13, 2013

Wonder Woman Extra: "Billie Jo and the Outlaw" (1976)

Before Lynda Carter got that phone call informing her she’d be America’s favorite bullet-deflecting, satin tight wearing super she-ro, she starred in this cheapie flick produced by American International Studios. This outfit basically produced every exploitation flick from the 69s and 70s; back then they were mainly shown in drive-ins, usually as double features, where teen audiences were not so discriminating (for obvious reasons). Bobbie Jo and the Oulaw is a perfect example of this particular strain of cheapie – in 1976, fast cars, drugs and boobs were necessary ingredients, and thanks to films like Bonnie and Clyde and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, rebel outlaws were too. And one other element was rising in popularity – the small-bit country singer who’s got his/her sight on being a star. Here that represented by Lynda Carter, who gets a chance to showcase her singing chops, albeit just briefly.

So the plot is nothing at all special, but here’s a quick recap: Lyle Wheeler (Marjoe Gortner), who fancies himself a fast draw in the tradition of Billy the Kid, swipes the car of a leather salesman, and from there takes the life of an outlaw, beguiling a fresh faced drive-in waitress named Bobbie Jo (Carter) in the process. One act of crime leads to another, and before long, the duo become a fivesome, now including Bobbie’s best friend Essie (Belinda Balaski), sister Pearl (Merrie Lynn Ross), and Pearl’s boyfriend Slick (Jessie Vint). The band vows to defend each other to the death, with the exception of Essie, who notifies the cops of their whereabouts; she gets shot by the cops in the ensuing crossfire, strengthening the rest of the group’s resolve to continue their criminal ways. Of course, it all comes down to a standoff in a motel room – the cops have the place surrounded, and riddle Lyle and his gang with bullets. Only Bobbie survives… maybe she’ll get to the Grand Ol’ Opry after all.

Loaded with clichés and rife with pretty low production values, Bobbie is, nonetheless, surprisingly entertaining for its ilk, in part because its writing is fairly crisp and convincing, and well-acted to boot. Lyle’s character feels fresh and interesting, despite being based on so many other film archetypes – his actions come with mantra – from his attitude toward stealing and killing (only in self defense, otherwise it’s evil) to death itself, evidenced by his eulogy for Essie. Carter also does an interesting job transforming her character from one of goo-eyed adoration for Lyle, to skepticism of his shady ways, to addiction to their lifestyle together and ultimate glee for the crimes she helps commit.

If the film has any major flaw, it’s probably the absence of a rooting interest. The film does seem to side with Lyle, as the cops tend to be brutal pigs whereas Lyle does have a vague moral code. But quite frankly I wanted him captured pretty early on. Part of the brilliance in Bonnie and Clyde was the way it got you to like these two bank robbers, and then pull the rug out from under you when they perish in a hail of gunfire at the end (still a shocker).

All right, all right – by now you’re wondering, how are Lynda Carter’s nude scenes. Just remember this was still 1976, so they didn’t go too far (this isn’t Skinemax after all). There is one darkly-lit shot of topless lovemaking, but you see it only from the side, and only briefly. (Evidently they could only get Carter to do this once, so they literally used the same shot again later in a different scene.) So in a nutshell: only fair. But for my money it’s Balaski who puts in a better show. Not only does she do the lion’s share of nudity (especially in the “magic mushroom” skinny-dipping scene), but she plays a delightfully appealing, quirky character that presages some of her later film work, particularly that with director Joe Dante.

This may be a tough film to find, but if you can locate it, it’s worth 86 minutes of your time, if for nothing else than as a trip back in time. Afternoon delight, anyone?

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