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Fast Times at Ridgemont High: 30 Years Later

August 13, 2012

“She’s probably somebody’s only light, gonna shine tonight”

In the fall of 1979, a 22-year-old writer who had made a name for himself as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine in previous years – writing stories on such famous rock stars as Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Led Zeppelin – went to the office of the principal of a high school in Southern California. In this meeting, the writer told the principal his idea of going undercover as a high school student for a year in order to research a novel he planned to write. The principal was skeptical until the writer mentioned one of people he had written about at Rolling Stone was Kris Kristofferson. Since the principal was a big fan, he said yes to the writer. The writer ended up attending school for the whole year, basically getting to experience high school normally (since he had not only been an “accelerated child” – his mother skipped him a couple grades – but because he had missed days in school because of his job), and blended in enough the principal didn’t even remember him at the end of the year. The writer eventually published his novel, which became a minor hit, and it eventually became a movie from a first-time director (their previous film was a short film), with a group of relatively unknown actors in the main roles (with the exception of a well-known character actor as the tyrannical teacher). The studio had no confidence in the movie at first, and even planned to dump the movie without it playing on the East Coast, until word-of-mouth turned it into a cult hit. The writer, of course, was Cameron Crowe, the director was Amy Heckerling, and the movie was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which was released 30 years ago today.

It’s easy to forget this in retrospect, but when the teen movie became a dominant genre again in the early 80’s (just one more thing the decade had in common with the 50’s), most of the movies on hand were pretty much exploitation films, with little more than gross-out gags and T&A to drive the movie (Friday the 13th helped kick off the teen horror movie, along with Halloween, but except for the sequels to those movies, that sub-genre didn’t become prevalent until a little later). There were oddities, like Fame (which was, to be sure, about a particular niche of teens), Foxes (which I don’t much like, but was at least an attempt at something more ambitious), and Times Square (which was more of a fable), but in general, most of the movies, like Porky’s, seemed pitched to the lowest level. In some ways, Fast Times resembled this genre – its most famous character, after all, became stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), and arguably its most famous scene was Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) fantasizing about Linda Powell (Phoebe Cates), best friend of his sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Yet there was a lot more going on than that.

For starters, while Spicoli, whom I’ll get to in a minute, was the most memorable character, and was one of the leads, he shared the spotlight with Stacy, Brad, and Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer). For another, their stories weren’t exactly the stories of your typical teen exploitation movie. Stacy, for example, though young, thinks she’s ready for the path of the more experienced Linda, but she’s left with heartbreak, first after going out with Ron (D.W. Brown), an older guy, and then with Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), Rat’s best friend, a ticket scalper; she ends up getting pregnant by him and having an abortion. Rat, for his part, has a crush on Stacy, and they even go out on a date, but when she invites him back to her place, and they start making out, he freezes up and has to flee the scene because he’s so scared. Brad, meanwhile, starts the year with a cushy job at All-American burger, and with a steady girlfriend in Lisa (Amanda Wyss). However, he ends up losing the job (over an altercation with a customer) and gets dumped by Lisa (ironically, he was planning to dump her), and he ends up taking a series of increasingly humiliating jobs. Even Mike, arguably the most unsympathetic of the characters, has a few moments of humanity; he initially tries to raise the money for Stacy’s abortion, and for all of his fast talk (he lectures Rat on his “five-point plan” for getting women), turns out to be just as inexperienced as Rat is.

Lest this all sound like an after-school special rather than a movie, it should also be remembered Heckerling and Crowe handle everything almost everything with a light touch, and balance it all with humor. Most of the humor, of course, comes from Spicoli, especially when he’s set against Mr. Hand (Ray Walston, the well-known character actor alluded to earlier), his history teacher. For all of Spicoli’s stoner attitude (being the only one excited when the science class goes to a hospital morgue), there’s always something good-natured about him, even when battling Mr. Hand (as with the famous line, “If you’re here, and I’m here, doesn’t that make it our time?”). And Mr. Hand, though being a hard-ass, seems more bemused than anything else (“Are you all on dope?”). Heckerling and Crowe also capture the details of high school at the time, from the number of girls who dress like Pat Benatar (when I went to high school, Madonna was the one the girls imitated, but the principle is the same), to the way rumors spread (Spicoli calling Mr. Hand a dick becomes him pulling a knife on Mr. Hand in the re-telling), and to the way the mall is a hangout (and for many, a place to work) when not in school. This also keeps the movie from getting too preachy.

Besides Jeff Spicoli and the memorable scene involving Brad and Linda, there were a couple of things Fast Times became noted for. One, when it came out on VHS (and later, laserdisc), this was the time when video started becoming popular, but also when lawyers realized the issues involving using music for the video and laserdisc versions (it didn’t occur to people at the time to license the music for anything beyond the theatrical version), so Fast Times was one of the first movies affected in having different music for the VHS and laserdisc versions than for the theatrical and even TV versions (not until the 1996 edition of the DVD did the original music get used for home use). Also, being this was still a time when movies regularly played on network TV some time after their theatrical release, Fast Times obviously had to be edited for content, but it was also one of those movies that had different scenes included for the television version. The three scenes I remember most clearly were Brad and his friends warning Stacy about Mr. Hand, Linda and Stacy leaving the mall and being interrupted by a girl wanting to ask Linda about sex, and Brad having a bitter session with a high school guidance counselor (where his retort to her assertion that high school is all about having fun is, “I’m still waiting for the fun to begin”). I think these scenes add dimension to Brad and Linda, and I think it’s a mistake for the DVD version not to include them. I also think the character who isn’t developed enough is Charles Jefferson, the football star played by Forrest Whitaker (though, as Jonathan Bernstein points out in his excellent book Pretty in Pink, an entertaining look at the teen films of the 80’s, Fast Times is more subtle than most of the other teen films of the decade in dealing with African-American teens; still, that’s not saying much).

Those caveats aside, Fast Times still holds up pretty well after 30 years. Crowe left some of the more serious parts of the novel out of the movie (such as a kid losing his parents and another committing suicide), but you could see not only his knack for character but also dialogue starting to shine through. It ranges from funny (most of Spicoli’s lines, my favorite being, “That’s my skull! I’m so wasted!”) to serious without being sappy (Brad and Stacy’s conversation when she comes out of the abortion clinic), and sounds and feels authentic. Heckerling uses the music, which ranges from the Go-Go’s (“We Got the Beat” and “Speeding”) to Jackson Browne (“Somebody’s Baby”) to Led Zeppelin (“Kashmir”), well throughout the movie, never having it call attention to itself; of particular note is using “Somebody’s Baby” during the scenes Stacy’s love scenes, bringing the same note of longing her character feels both times.

Much of the cast, of course, went on to do bigger things, though ironically enough, arguably the most well-known member of the cast has no lines and can only be glimpsed in a few scenes (Nicolas Cage was originally up for the part of Brad, but was considered too young, so instead, you see him as one of Brad’s friends at the football game and at the fast food place he works at). But they all do a good job. A lot of critics have wished Penn would do more comedy, and while I like the direction his career has taken (with some exceptions, like I Am Sam), I agree he’s very funny, and very natural, as Spicoli. Even without that deleted scene, Cates plays Linda as likable because she’s experienced, not despite that fact, which is different from most of the other teen sex comedies of the decade. Similarly, Backer makes Rat into a real awkward teen, not a Hollywood idea of one. Walston is also very funny as Mr. Hand (in the novel, Crowe has him taking after Steve McGarrett from “Hawaii 5-0”; Walston doesn’t use that, but makes him bemused as much as he’s annoyed, which is funny). And, though again, the deleted scenes would have helped round out Brad, Reinhold is as good portraying Brad’s highs and lows. Also good in smaller roles are Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards as Spicoli’s stoner buds. But it’s Leigh who gives the movie its heart, and is able to play her big scenes without falling into bathos. Only Romanus seems a bit limited; he’s good when he’s turning on the charm, but when he tries to express vulnerability he’s a bit limited. Few teen sex comedies of the time were able to make an impression (including the semi-sequel Crowe wrote, 1984’s The Wild Life, where only Randy Quaid (as a Vietnam Vet) and a young Sherilyn Fenn (as a teen) rang true), which is another way Fast Times still holds up after all these years; it does make an impression as a film that may look like a simple exploitation film, but is much deeper than that.

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