Max Baer Jr. producer
Roger Camras producer
Mark Sussman associate producer
Robby Benson – Billy Joe McAllister
Glynnis O’Connor – Bobbie Lee Hartley
Joan Hotchkis – Anna ‘Mama’ Hartley
Sandy McPeak – Glenn ‘Papa’ Hartley
James Best – Dewey Barksdale
Terence O. Goodman – James Hartley
Becky Bowen – Becky Thompson
Simpson Hemphill – Brother Taylor
Ed Shelnut – Coleman Stroud, Bus Driver
Eddie Talr – Tom Hargitay
William Hallberg – Dan McAllister
Frannye Capelle – Belinda Wiggs
Rebecca Jernigan – Mrs. Thompson
Ann Martin – Mrs. Hunicutt
Will Long – Trooper Bosh
John Roper – Trooper Ned
Pat Purcell – Alabama Boy #1 in Pickup Truck
Jim Westerfield – Alabama Boy #2 in Pickup Truck
Jack Capelle – Alabama Pickup Truck Driver
Al Scott – Master of Ceremonies
Peggy Kubena –
Paul Hughes Sr. –
Michael D. Carlin – Hunicutt kid (uncredited)
Review by Gary F Taylor
Ode to Billy Joe (1976)
An Incredibly Embarrassing Film
Bobbie Gentry’s album ODE TO BILLY JOE knocked The Beatles’ SGT. PEPPER off the top of the American music charts in the 1960s, and the title track became a musical touchstone for many of that generation. It was a ballad, and it offered the story of a rural Mississippi farm girl who learns through casual conversation over the kitchen table that Billy Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge. Simply written and performed, Gentry’s song had an aura of mysterious tragedy, for clearly there was some unknown relationship between the singer and Billy Joe–and while Gentry implied a great deal, she did not specify the details, leaving her listeners to wonder and make interpretations of their own.
One of the most popular ideas about the song was that Billy Joe was black, and that the “something” he and the singer had been seen throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge was their secretly born infant–and in many respects this interpretation fit the details of the lyrics Gentry wrote. But Gentry herself left the mystery intact, and although often pressed over the years, she wisely never specified exactly who Billy Joe was, what the relationship had been, what had been throw off the bridge–or even if the “something” thrown off the bridge was even relevant.
Presumably the powers that be rejected the idea of making Billy Joe black–and there is some justification there, for Gentry never said he was, and if indeed he was black the entire plot of the film would be obvious the instant the character appeared on the screen. So they came up with a different twist. In the mid-1970s, Hollywood considered homosexuality to be the dirty secret to end all dirty secrets, and films still generally presented gay characters as desperately unhappy at best.
Now, the general idea that Hollywood came up with wasn’t in and of itself bad–and if you consider what might have been done with it the possibilities are really intriguing. But what they did with it in fact was an entirely different matter. Not only is the plot and script bad, they are so bad that they are downright embarrassing, and whenever the film is mentioned I find myself unable to suppress a reflexive cringe.
But there is a tremendous irony here. When Hollywood wants to a movie about Mississippi, it almost never actually goes to Mississippi; instead, the director goes to Florida, or South Carolina, or Georgia, or just shoots the film on a Los Angeles backlot. The result, of course, is that it looks like anywhere except Mississippi. But while Max Bear is no great shakes as a director, he actually did film the movie in Mississippi, and what’s more he filmed it around the old Talliahatchie bridge, so for once they got at least that much right. And the cast is also quite good, particularly lead Glynnis O’Connor. So the elements were there: it looked right, the cast was strong, and they had an idea with potential. But in truth, that just makes the actual result that much more unfortunate.
If you’re a fan of the song, or if you grew up in Mississippi as I did, you might want to sit through this film once. But trust me: once will be enough. And if you don’t care about the song and have no interest in seeing what rural Mississippi actually looks like as opposed to what Hollywood thinks it looks like, you need to avoid this one like the plague.