From song to screen: “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

On the third of June, Billie Joe McAllister committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billie JoeBobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit song “Ode to Billie Joe” chronicles a family sitting around the dinner table and casually discussing the death of a local boy-not considering the feelings of the narrator who was dating Billie Joe.

One line in Gentry’s song discusses the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge generated the most questions from fans: “What did she and Billie Joe throw off the bridge?”

Fans speculated LSD, a baby, a ring, flowers or a draft card were tossed into the muddy Mississippi waters.

“People are trying to read social comment into the song. I wrote it as a comment on human nature, not on society,” Gentry said in a 1967 Associated Press interview. “I don’t know what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The act itself was more symbolic than anything.”

But in 1976, a movie based on the song gave an answer to what was thrown off the bridge and why Billy Joe McAllister committed suicide: a homosexual experience.

“What the song didn’t tell you, the movie will” it advertised.

Set in 1953, the film version of “Ode to Billy Joe” (the spelling of Billy differs in the song and film) stars Glynnis O’Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley, the 15-year old narrator, and Robby Benson as Billy Joe McAllister.

Fifteen-year-old Bobbie Lee is an adolescent young woman eager for gentlemen affections. In her frustrated state, she reads torrid romance magazines and says ridiculous lines such as, “I’m a body too with desires,” “Nothing has passed my lips except Pepsi Cola” and “I’m 15, and going on 34 – B cup.”

ode to billy joeBilly Joe confesses his love for Bobbie Lee, but her father says she is too young to date.

The budding romance is mainly a game of cat and mouse of Bobbie Lee pretending she doesn’t like Billy Joe.

One night, the town holds a jamboree with a make shift whorehouse in the back. Billy Joe is drunk and confused about it all and is missing for two days after the jamboree.

The reason for Billy Joe’s disappearance is the same reason as his suicide: at the jamboree he has sexual relations with a man. The man turns out to be his boss at the sawmill Dewey Barksdale, played by James Best.

Billy Joe shows up in tears, ashamed of what he did saying it is sin against nature and a sin against God.

“I don’t know how I want to be with you and do that,” he tells Bobbie Lee.

During their discussion, Billy Joe throws something off the bridge- Bobbie Lee’s childhood doll, Benjamin.

After Billy Joe’s death, the town is filled with rumors that Bobbie Lee is pregnant with his baby, though the two never had sex.

Bobbie Lee melodramatically decides to leave town and pretend that she has the baby and will return when the rumors die down. She meets Barksdale on the bridge, who is on his way to confess what he has done. Bobbie Lee gives a speech, saying telling the truth won’t do Barksdale or Billy Joe, any good.

“Billy Joe’s already on his way to becoming a legend. He made a desirable girl pregnant and then jumped off the bridge. We ought to leave him with that,” Bobbie Lee said.

The film ends with Barksdale carrying Bobbie Lee’s bag to the bus stop.

Gentry received movie offers after the song came out in 1967, but she held out for 10 years, she said in a 1976 article in the Nashua Telegraph written by Vernon Scott.

“I waited because I was afraid it would become an exploitation picture to capitalize off the record,” Gentry was quoted. “I didn’t want it done cheaply.”

“Ode to Billie Joe” was originally a short story written by Gentry, and then condensed into a song, she said in the 1976 interview.

Gentry wrote a song for Max Baer, Jr.’s film “Macon County Line.” Baer produced “Macon County Line” and directed “Ode to Billy Joe.” He is known for his role as Jethro on the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  She liked Baer’s work and she brought “Ode to Billie Joe” to him as a film idea, the Nashua Telegraph article said.

In the contract, Gentry had approval of characters and plot development. She also re-recorded the hit song for the film.

Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor in "Ode to Billy Joe" (1976)

Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor in “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

“Now that I know why Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I almost wish I didn’t,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his July 7, 1976 film review. “Bobbie Gentry’s famous song, on which “Ode to Billy Joe” is based, found much of its haunting effect in its refusal to reveal why Billy Joe killed himself. His death was seen as sad, and long ago, and unnecessary, and the singer recalled it as a key event in an unhappy time. Gentry didn’t need to explain because she evoked.”

Ebert gave the movie 2.5 out of 3 stars in 1976, saying the dialogue is attractive, but that the movie goes astray after Billy Joe kills himself.

Personally, I found the dialogue hokey with several pointless scenes. “Did they really just say that?” was a reoccurring thought as I watched the hour and forty-five minute film.

The film doesn’t play scenes that are lyric-by-lyric of the song. This is probably a good thing. There isn’t a dinner table scene when Billy Joe’s death is discussed and Billy Joe doesn’t put a frog down Bobbie Lee’s back at the Carroll County picture show.

However, there is a preacher watching as the doll is thrown off the bridge, and Bobbie Lee’s father says, “Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.” This is said after an incident where some drunk Alabamians try to push his truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

While I may not have enjoyed this film, I do understand the message that was trying to be portrayed- Billy Joe’s senseless suicide because of societal beliefs. Billy Joe’s confusion, guilt and shame that leads him to kill himself is a relevant issue for 1953, 1976 and most likely today. Though as Gentry originally said, her song was not a social commentary.

Along with the ridiculous script and disliking Robby Benson, my main issue with the film is giving a reason to Billy Joe’s death.

The original purpose of the song is “unconscious cruelty”- the nonchalant way the narrator’s family discusses Billy Joe’s suicide, Gentry said in an interview when the song was released.

Even though Gentry agreed to the film, I feel giving a reason to the suicide takes away from the mournful tune of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

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1 thought on “From song to screen: “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

  1. Isn’t the Internet great? Everyone can be a critic. I appreciate your thoughts, but don’t you think Glynnis O’Connor did a great job? Think about it – think about the lines you found laughable – then think about how the actors had to deliver those lines… I think it’s only fair that if your going to spread the hate, you also should recognize how wonderful Glynnis O’Connor was. And she was. And how every single day Glynnis and I tried to figure out, “How on earth are we going to make this work?” I envy you: No work and all play, so here’s to your 15 minutes.
    Sincerely and respectfully, Robby Benson


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