Ode to Billy Joe is a 1976 film with a screenplay by Herman Raucher, inspired by the 1967 hit song by Bobbie Gentry, titled "Ode to Billie Joe".
The film was directed and produced by Max Baer, Jr. ("Jethro" of The Beverly Hillbillies fame) and stars Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor. Made for $1.1 million, it grossed $27 million at the box office, plus earnings in excess of $2.65 million in the foreign market, $4.75 million from television, and $2.5 million from video.
Gentry's song recounts the day when Billie Joe McAllister committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge on Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi. When Gentry and Raucher got together to work on the screenplay, she explained that while the song was based on an actual event, she had no idea why the real person who inspired the character of Billie Joe had killed himself. Raucher thus had a free hand to pick one.
Set in 1953, the film explores the budding relationship between teenagers Billy Joe McAllister (Benson) and Bobbie Lee Hartley (O'Connor) (who corresponds to the unnamed narrator of the original song), despite resistance from Hartley's family, who contend she is too young to date. One night at a jamboree, McAllister gets drunk and seems nauseated and confused when entering a makeshift brothel behind the gathering. It turns out that in his inebriated state, he had sex with another man, later revealed to be his sawmill boss, Dewey Barksdale (James Best).
After his intimate encounter with Barksdale, Billy Joe disappears for several days. He then returns, and Bobbie Lee finally submits to her passions at a secluded spot near the bridge, and she encourages him to make love to her. Billy Joe, however, is unable to consummate their relationship due to his guilt. He tells Bobbie Lee that he has been with a man, bids her an enigmatic goodbye, and subsequently kills himself by jumping off the bridge spanning the Tallahatchie River. The local preacher, who had seen Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee together, and other townsfolk spread the false story that Billy Joe had impregnated Bobbie Lee out of wedlock and had committed suicide for that reason. For the sake of the family, Bobbie Lee's brother insists that she either quietly pursue an abortion or, if she insists upon having the baby, leave town.
Knowing that no one will ever believe that she and Billy Joe had not had sex and that she was never pregnant, Bobbie Lee decides to leave home. Very early one morning, with suitcase in hand, she walks to town to get a bus. On the way she meets Barksdale on the bridge, where he tells her that he is headed to her house to confess to her father and clear her name. She advises him against doing so, noting that revealing the truth would forever tarnish Billy Joe's reputation. He initially holds fast to his desire to confess, but Bobbie Lee calmly stresses that the news would further devastate Billy Joe's family and leave Barksdale himself subject to criminal prosecution. She also assures him that she does not mind her fate and then adds, "Oh, I'll be back before long; I'm only 15. What do I know of the world?" Finally agreeing with the girl's logic, he offers Bobbie Lee a ride to the bus station, which she graciously accepts. The film ends with the two of them walking off the bridge together.Robby Benson as Billy Joe McAllisterGlynnis O'Connor as Bobbie Lee HartleyJoan Hotchkis as Anna 'Mama' HartleySandy McPeak as Glenn 'Papa' HartleyJames Best as Dewey BarksdaleTerence Goodman as James HartleyBecky Bowen as Becky ThompsonSimpson Hemphill as Brother TaylorEd Shelnut as Coleman StroudEddie Talr as Tom HargitayWilliam Hallberg as Dan McAllister
Scenes at the old sawmill were filmed at Cross Lumber Company in Vaiden, Mississippi. The bridge featured in the film crossed the Yazoo River on County Road 512 near Sidon, Mississippi. It has since been demolished and replaced by a modern concrete span in 1987, with plaques at both the eastern and western ends commemorating the film.
The film was scheduled for release on June 3, 1976 to coincide with the opening lyrics of the song ("It was the third of June..."); however, since most new motion picture releases in the United States do not occur on Thursday, the date was moved back to Friday, June 4.