Sunday, August 21, 2022

Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" Turns 40

Amy Heckerling, a filmmaker fresh out of college, was given the chance to direct a film based on Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, which he wrote after spending a year undercover as a high school student. The resulting film is a funny, tender and true account of high school life at the time, focused on Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sophomore just beginning to date.

Most known to marijuana fans for Sean Penn's portrayal of surfer/stoner Jeff Spicoli, the film also helped launch the careers of Leigh as well as Forest Whitaker,  Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola in a small role for his first film), and others. Heckerling's gift for casting included choosing Penn after being "overwhelmed by his intensity, even though all he had done was look up at her." 

The film was selected for re-release in May by The Criterion Collection,  featuring a restored 4K digital transfer, deleted and alternate scenes, a conversation with Heckerling and Crowe moderated by Olivia Wilde, and more. An essay by film critic Dana Stevens to introduce the release says, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High was the beneficiary of an improvisational, DIY freedom its director would never quite enjoy again, and that was fast disappearing from the studio system itself. Each new viewing makes you notice a different well-thought-through detail (the Peanuts-style near absence of visible parents! the dandyish New Wave touch of Damone’s piano-keyboard scarf!)."  

Heckerling directing Leigh in Fast Times
Interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter upon the 40th anniversary release, Heckerling said, “The whole theme, of even the title, is things are going too fast for young people. They shouldn’t have to worry so much about sex at such an early age.” She added that she’s unsure whether Fast Times, in which Linda (Cates) discusses losing her virginity at 13 and Stacy gets an abortion, would be made today. “We’re going backwards in so many ways.” noted in an interview with Heckerling, "The popularity of Spicoli created a sort of ground swell of dude comedies, such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Wayne’s World.” She replied, "I love those movies. There is always the character who is the joker and the wisenheimer. I mean, Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis. I was pretty much crazy about him."   

After Fast Times, Heckerling was "bombarded with similar but lesser scripts." She had some success with Johnny Dangerously (1984), an Airplane!-style spoof of gangster movies starring Michael Keaton, and with National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985) with Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, which earned $75 million at the box office. 

In 1989, she had her biggest financial success with Look Who's Talking, starring John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and a baby voiced by Bruce Willis. Heckerling got the idea for the film while she was pregnant with her daughter. "I wanted to have hits the way boys had hits, not like a 'girl hit' that made 50 million, but a boy hit that made 100s of millions," Heckerling said. The film earned $300 million. Sequels followed.

Directing Silverstone in Clueless
In 1995, Heckerling wrote and directed Clueless, a modern version of Jane Austen's Emma set at Beverly Hills High School. The film starred Alicia Silverstone, who smokes pot at a party in it. The stoner character, who Silverstone's character at first decides isn't worthy to date her protegée, gives up his bong to charity in the end. Heckerling won the National Society of Film Critics Best Screenplay award and was nominated for the Writers Guild of America award for her Clueless script. In 1999, she received the Women in Film Crystal Award for outstanding women who, through endurance and excellence, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.

In September 2020, a virtual table read of Fast Times at Ridgemont High benefitted Penn's charity CORE and its COVID-19 relief efforts. The all-star cast included Penn along with Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, John Legend, Ray Liotta, Jimmy Kimmel, and Shia LaBeouf as Spicoli in a hilarious performance that seemed to include smoking a joint to get into character. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti introduced the reading saying that as an 11-year-old, "it was the defining movie of my youth." 

Heckerling recalled at the end of the table read that Penn was "deeply into staying in character," to the point where he asked to only be called "Jeff" or "Spicoli" throughout filming. Penn told Conan O'Brien in 2019 that he had recently run into the Malibu surfer dude who inspired his performance as Spicoli; he'd gone straight and was a businessman and family man.  

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