35th reunion at Ridgemont High
“The whole movie is a failure of taste, tone, and nerve — the waste of a good cast on erratic, offensive material that hasn’t been thought through, or maybe even thought about.”
— Roger Ebert, review of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jan. 1,
1982 Now we can admit it — high school was horrible.
Not just for you, for everyone. For the captain of the football team, for the homecoming queen, for the squared-away straight-arrow class president with the appointment to a service academy locked up, and even for the apathetic stoner in the back of the room with the baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes.
How could it not have been? Adolescence is horrible. Your half-baked brain is awash in crazy-making hormones, trapped in a body that’s spurty and transitory, making you uncouth and
self-conscious and given to overcompensation. If society really had its children’s best interests at heart, it might devise a system where boys and girls from ages 14 to 18 are educated in isolation from one another. Instead, we pen them in together on a campus and make nostalgic sex comedies about the experience.
Amy Heckerling’s directorial debut Fast Times at Ridgemont High is neither the truest depiction of the American high school experience ever committed to film nor genuinely good sociology, but it is remembered fondly by many of us who saw it upon its release in 1982. Special screenings to celebrate the film’s 35th anniversary will be held at select theaters around Arkansas today and on Wednesday. For locations, times and tickets go to FathomEvents.com.
The film launched many acting careers. It was the first time many of us saw Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Anthony Edwards, Judge Reinhold, Eric Stoltz and Nicolas Cage — who was billed as Nicolas Coppola — in a movie.
Heckerling went on to a formidable career, highlighted by writing and directing the sparkling Clueless (1995), another film that has managed to lodge itself in the American collective consciousness.
But what’s probably most interesting about Fast Times at Ridgemont High is it is based on a work of “new journalism” by then 22-year-old Cameron Crowe who, went undercover as new kid Dave Cameron for a year at Clairemont High School in San Diego to research the lives of high school students. The book was presented, somewhat bizarrely, as a nonfiction novel, which
led to issues of authorial trust — it’s not entirely clear how much if any of the book is Crowe’s invention or speculation. Some of the incidents — in the book and the movie — seem like things no one would ever confess to anyone.
Crowe, now a famous writer-director known for his heartfelt if occasionally awkward romantic comedies, started his journalism career at 15 writing profiles of rock ’n’ roll figures for Rolling Stone, Playboy, Creem and other publications. (Crowe’s most successful and arguably best film, 2000’s Almost Famous, was an idealized memoir of this period of his life.) Fast Times at Ridgemont High represents his first long-form nonfiction, and read today — if you can find it, it’s out of print and commands a premium on the used book market (a quick internet search revealed a first edition hardcover going for $500, a mint condition trade paperback priced at $379 and a “fair” condition copy selling for $77.98) — it feels vaguely clinical and stiff, especially compared to the movie.
Still, while the book is inferior to the movie, it’s still a quick and interesting read, and almost every incident that occurs in the movie is depicted in the book. Crowe at 22 was a better screenwriter than writer. The filmed scenes based on the book’s anecdotes are invariably zippier and funnier than the same scenes on paper.
In the book, the character Jeff Spicoli is an unlikable dolt. Penn transforms him — via an irrepressible smile and charmingly vapid surfer-speak — to, if not quite the hero of the piece, at least its most enduring archetype. Penn’s Spicoli is sunnier, more sympathetic and wittier than his literary counterpart.
Also, the depiction of star football player Charles Jefferson (Whitaker) is more nuanced and darker in the book. In the movie, Jefferson is a black shadow, a man among boys with seemingly little patience for his childish peers. He exists to menace those who disrespect him. The movie makes him an unwilling dupe of Spicoli who, while joy-riding with Jefferson’s younger brother, wrecks the athlete’s prized Camaro Z/28. While the kid brother freaks out about the revenge Jefferson might seek, Spicoli has the bright idea of parking the ruined car in front of the school with racial slurs supposedly written by Ridgemont’s big rival Lincoln High.
When Ridgemont plays Lincoln, Jefferson takes his anger out on the Lincoln players, and Ridgemont wins the game.
But the book’s Jefferson has a sensitive side. He’s determined to be no one’s “black friend.” He leaves the team because of racist taunts and is lured back by the coach. There’s an incredible story about his hijacking a city bus to get home when his Z/28 is in the shop, which gets him banned from city buses. He ends up getting arrested for breaking into a Radio Shack. Obviously this version of Charles Jefferson doesn’t fit comfortably into the high school sex comedy mode.
High school is a relatively recent development. Up until the 1920s, most Americans lived in small rural communities that might be served by a single school. Once children reached high school age, many if not most of them had acquired adult responsibilities. They had duties on the farm; they may have been apprenticed to a trade.
High schools really started to develop during the 1930s as progressive educators like Maria Montessori and John Dewey sketched out the basic model of the American public school system. Then the economic boom in the aftermath of World War II created a new consumer class called “teenagers.” (See “rock ’n’ roll,” “reasons for.”) By the ’40s there were occasional movies set in or partially in high schools, such as 1940’s High School, a B movie in which a rough-hewn rancher’s daughter (Jane Withers) is sent to a large San Antonio high school where, after some initial setbacks, she wows them with her authenticity and moxie. .
By 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, famous for featuring the music of Bill Haley and the Comets, the high school film seemed to have been codified. Blackboard Jungle had the obligatory idealistic
young teacher (Glenn Ford) coming into a rough school, the threat of peer-on-peer violence, a humorlessly inflexible school bureaucracy and an uplifting ending. It also had Vic Morrow in his film debut as switchblade-wielding delinquent Artie West.
Morrow’s daughter, Jennifer Jason Leigh, made her film debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High as Stacy Hamilton, a 15-year-old sophomore anxious to lose her virginity.
Leigh’s Stacy is one of the film’s major characters. After losing her virginity to a 26-year-old stereo salesman who instantly ghosts her, she becomes involved in a romantic triangle that eventually drives a wedge between close friends Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) and Mark Ratner (Brian Backer).
Mark — known as “Rat” — has been crushing on Stacy, who works at the pizzeria across the mall from the movie theater where he works, but he’s too shy to approach her. So he seeks advice from Mike, a fast-talking would-be operator who confides his “secrets” for picking up girls. This emboldens Mike to ask Stacy out, but when she tries to seduce him he loses his nerve. Stacy then turns her attention to Mark.
Meanwhile Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) is looking forward to graduating and making the final payment on his 1960 Buick LeSabre. He has a job at a burger place alongside his girlfriend, Lisa (Amanda Wyss,) and appears to be rooted and stable. But he’s fired from his job after an encounter with an obnoxious customer, which sends him on a downward spiral. Lisa dumps him and he is reduced to working at Captain Hook Fish & Chips, where he’s required
to wear a humiliating pirate costume. (He quits this job after being forced to deliver food in costume.)
Meanwhile Spicoli, sometimes accompanied by his “stoner buds” (Stoltz and Edwards, whose characters didn’t even rate names though they get far more screen time than future Oscar winner Cage/Coppola, who’s only briefly glimpsed as an extra working the grill in Brad’s burger joint), careens through the film, bantering with dictatorial Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) and dropping the occasional zen bon mot.
Watched today, it’s a little surprising how frankly and matter-of-factly realistic the movie deals with (spoiler alert) Stacy’s abortion. Heckerling handles the scene and its aftermath with sensitivity while allowing the situation to speak for itself. It’s embarrassing, miserable and scary — like high school — but she doesn’t wallow in the sadness or posit it as a life-destroying event. It’s a terrible thing to go through, but Stacy (and all the movie’s characters) ends up all right.
It helps that several of the performances are terrific, especially those of Leigh and Penn. Reinhold is terrific too as the sort of Everykid most of us might remember our high school selves as being.
It’s not a great movie, but 35 years on Fast Times at Ridgemont High seems remarkable for the respect it paid its core audience — kids the same age as its characters. Crowe and Heckerling succeeded in providing that audience with a mildly flattering mirror that, over the decades, has turned into a favorite snapshot of the way they were.
Anthony Edwards (from left), Sean Penn and Eric Stoltz star in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is among a number of stars whose careers were launched by appearing in