On 1985’s Bizarre and Wonderful “Tomboy”

“Tomboy” is a bizarre little time capsule of an 80’s movie. Ostensibly a typical 80’s T & A flick, “Tomboy” has an unusual feminist streak to it that plays almost as an accident. One of the first movies released in 1985, “Tomboy” illustrates why I chose to watch 30 year old movies: the wonder of the oddball hidden gem.

I came to “Tomboy” with my ironic smirk firmly in place and the film did not disappoint. First, there is a gloriously cheesy, unnecessary flashback/dream sequence that has little to no bearing on the rest of the movie beyond providing a minor inspiration for Tommy’s (Betsy Russell) being a ‘tomboy’.

Then comes a glorious theme song, a song so wonderfully, beautifully and unendingly cheese-ridden that it left me gasping through laughter. The song “Tomboy” sounds as if it were written as a parody by the team that made “Too Many Cooks” and the montage that accompanies seems to go on for a mindbending length of time ala ‘Cooks.’

Now, the way a movie like “Tomboy” is supposed to play, according to Hollywood conventions, is that our heroine Tommy is going to learn a lesson about how to be a girl. She may not give up being a greasy mechanic but she will embrace the pleasures of wearing pink, putting on too much makeup and perfume. Oh, and she will learn these lessons while falling for a “Hunk,” which is an 80’s term not unlike hottie and with a similarly short cultural shelf-life.

“Tomboy” however, rarely plays by the rules of your typical 80’s movie. Much of the credit for that goes to Betsy Russell who, while known for B-movies where she takes her clothes off, here plays a woman who takes her clothes off but not without a purpose. Russell plays Tommy as a surprisingly modern creation who can build a whizbang stock car inspired by her astronaut father and be a beautiful, sexually progressive young.

Tomboy starring Betsy Russell

Tomboy starring Betsy Russell

As played by Russell, Tommy isn’t merely a sex object, she’s an adult woman who owns her sexuality. The sex between Tommy and her love interest Randy Starr (Gerard Christopher) is legitimately sexy and adult. Even in the midst of puerile and unnecessary, even blatantly misogynistic displays of flesh in “Tomboy” Russell proves capable of being legitimately sexy without seeming exploited.

It’s a strange disconnect however because “Tomboy” isn’t a good movie. In many ways, the movie happening around Russell is a rather typically terrible drive in movie. And yet, Russell invests Tommy with a strength of character, a good heart and a strong sense of self. Even as I type this I am trying to find ways to take it back and recognize how campy and unimportant this movie most certainly is, but I cannot deny how compelling Russell really is as Tommy.

It seems very strange to say it but there is a seemingly accidental feminist streak to “Tomboy.” Tommy and even, to a point, her best friend Seville (Kristi Somers), are strangely progressive characters for an 80’s T & A comedy. Both get naked but there is an empowerment to the to display of flesh, they own the screen in these moments rather than being mere eye candy.

And still, the film holds a place of ironic, campy enjoyment. There is no way around how bad “Tomboy” is in terms of directing and dialogue, production design and editing. The movie is a slapdash disaster with zero pretension toward being anything other than a product meant to sell tickets to horny teens. This fact leaves me rather in awe of the subversive strength of Russell’s performance.

“Tomboy” is a fascinating movie of high camp and bizarre quality. Whether intended or not, the film has a progressive quality to its female lead that is unlike any 80’s comedy of its ilk. Did Betsy Russell really sneak a feminist hero into an 80’s teen comedy or have the shifting political and social tides of the past 30 years warped Russell’s performance into something unintended? The fact that a movie like this could inspire that thought is one of the reasons why I love movies.

Time for our re-casting of “Tomboy”

Tommy Boyd: played by Betsy Russell: Re-cast: Demi Lovato

Seville Ritz: played by Kristi Somers: Re-cast: Heather Morris

Randy Starr: played by Gerard Christopher: Re-Cast Skylar Astin

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1 Response to On 1985’s Bizarre and Wonderful “Tomboy”

  1. Joe says:

    Good summary — some of the editing and other stuff is blatantly fake looking including the stunt double in the long shots during a motorcycle ride. Still, BR is great (she has a chipmunk look at times — apparently didn’t wear braces as a kid — that was adorable) and Kristi Somers was good as well as her comic relief best friend.

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