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Everything Was Going Too Fast For Them

February 7th, 2009 · 10 Comments

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Screenplay by Cameron Crowe, based on his novel
Directed by Amy Heckerling
Produced by Universal Pictures
Running time: 90 minutes

Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982 poster Fast Times at Ridgemont High DVD

Synopsis
As a new school year begins at Ridgemont High, six students are introduced. Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works at Perry’s Pizza in the mall. When a foxy looking stereo salesman gives her his card, Stacy’s friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) implores her to be aggressive. “You’re fifteen years old. I did it when I was thirteen. It’s no big thing, it’s only sex.” Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) is assistant to the assistant manager of the movie theater and laments his pathetic social situation to his friend, smooth talking ticket scalper Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). Stacy’s brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) is a jock and Employee of the Month at “All America Burger.” He blows his cool with a customer, gets fired, and suffers the indignity of accepting work at “Captain Hook Fish ‘n Chips.” Stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) rejects the concerns of his peers, declaring “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.”

On the first day of school, Spicoli runs afoul with his strict history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) by wandering in late for class. Their battle of wills continues all the way to the night of the prom, when Mr. Hand unveils a unique system for paying back students who waste his time. After Stacy loses her virginity to the stereo salesman in a baseball dugout, her phone calls to him go unreturned. Harboring a crush throughout the semester in biology class, Ratner works up the nerve to ask Stacy out; to his amazement, she says yes. Seeking dating advice, Ratner is given a five-step plan from Damone that culminates with, “When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on Side One of Led Zeppelin IV.” Too awkward to take their relationship to that level, Ratner stands by while Damone plies his charms on the lovesick Stacy.

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Production history
Cameron Crowe launched his auspicious journalism career at the age of 15, writing articles on rock ‘n roll that ended up in Creem and Rolling Stone magazines. In the introduction to what would become his first and only novel in 1981, Crowe recounted, “For seven years I wrote articles for a youth culture magazine, and perhaps not a day went by when this term wasn’t used: ‘the kids.’ Editors assigned certain articles for ‘the kids.’ Music and film executives were constantly discussing whether a product appealed ‘to the kids.’ Rock stars spoke of commercial concessions made ‘for the kids.’ Kids were discussed as if they were some huge whale, to be harpooned and brought to shore. It began to fascinate me, the idea of The Kids. They were everywhere, standing on street corners in their Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts, in cars, in the 7-Eleven. Somehow this grand constituency controlled almost every adult’s fate, yet no adult really knew what it was nowadays – to be a kid.”

When Rolling Stone moved offices from L.A. to New York, a colleague named David Obst went to work for Simon & Schuster. Obst agreed to become Crowe’s publisher, suggesting that if his client really wanted to find out about “the kids,” he should go back to high school and put those experiences in a book. So in the fall of 1979, a 22-year-old Crowe moved in with his parents in San Diego and got permission from the principal of Clairemont High School to enroll as a student named Dave Cameron.”The object, I told him, was to write a book about real, contemporary life in high school.” Crowe’s friendships – or “research” – culminated in six characters: a middle class brother and sister, her sexually experienced best friend, a nerd, a music loving ticket scalper and a stoned surfer. At the end of the school year, Crowe approached his subjects and revealed he was writing a book. At the time, they were largely indifferent.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982 Brian Backer Robert Romanus

The president of Universal Pictures – Thom Mount – was familiar with Crowe’s articles and had a feeling his novel might be a modern day Catcher In The Rye. Before the book was even finished, he optioned the film rights. Fast Times At Ridgemont High: A True Story was published in October 1981 to mostly positive reviews and decent sales. Mount got Crowe together with producer Art Linson, who the writer had met during a visit to the set of American Hot Wax in 1975. “Art and Thom Mount decided that I would be the cheapest guy to adapt my own book. They gave me the job of writing the screenplay, figuring it probably would never get made or some other writer would come in. But, as time went on, they protected me, and I went through several drafts of that script, and I began to fall in love with screenwriting.”

Linson recalled the collaboration with Crowe. “He came to New York, and I tried to sort of supervise him writing the screenplay, because he had never written one before. But he did a fantastic job. Cameron was painstakingly into the detail of what he was trying to do. He took the slightest moments very seriously: how the kids look at each other, how they feel about each other.” Mount felt that he knew the perfect director for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Crowe recalls, “So we sent the script to David Lynch who read it in about a day or two and said, ‘Well, this is funny, not really my material.'” Linson remembered a thesis film by a 27-year-old AFI grad student named Amy Heckerling called Getting It Over With. Heckerling had been lined up to make her feature film debut with a youth comedy she’d written for MGM, but three weeks before shooting was set to begin, the studio changed its mind. Efforts by the rookie director to set it up someplace else had gone nowhere.

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Heckerling recalled, “Art showed me Cameron’s script, and I really liked it and I told him various thoughts I had. Then he showed me the book, and I loved the book, and I really thought they had been doing a disservice to it. Cameron knew all these people, and in the book he’d recorded very accurately everything that was going on with them, and it was very funny because of that, whereas I felt like Universal were possibly trying to make more of a regular teen movie.” With Heckerling and Linson working alongside casting director Don Phillips, every up and coming actor read for roles: Ralph Macchio, Ally Sheedy, Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer, even Scott Baio. Sean Penn was also there and did not impress anyone with his initial reading. But Linson stated, “There was something special about Sean, you can always tell that in the room. ‘Maybe he’s not right for Spicoli, but he’s obviously great, let’s put him in something.’ But he made it known Spicoli was what he wanted to do. And so we went, ‘Fuck it.’”

On a budget of $4.5 million, Fast Times At Ridgemont High commenced an eight-week shooting schedule November 1981 around Los Angeles. The Sherman Oaks Galleria stood in for the mall, while the classroom scenes were shot over eight days at Van Nuys High School. Then there were the two sex scenes. Heckerling recalls, “I was angry about seeing so many movies with naked women and never seeing a naked guy. So when I shot the sex scene between Stacy and Damone in the poolhouse, I wanted it to be uncomfortable. She was naked, so I wanted to show the guy naked too. And the ratings board said, ‘You do that and you’ll get an X rating.’ I said, ‘How come you can see all these naked ladies in movies?’ And they said, ‘Because the female organ is not aggressive, but the male organ is.’ So what? Should we shoot it? Whatever. But I was a very cranky young lady, and the idea of compromising makes you crazy.”

Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982 Robert Romanus Jennifer Jason Leigh

As a release of August 1982 neared, Universal was far from high on Fast Times. Art Linson recalls, “Before this picture came out, the studio hated the picture. Let’s just, for the record: the studio thought the picture was going to bomb. We got an R rating – we almost got an X rating – they didn’t like the picture and in fact, right before it came out, they decided not to release it on the East Coast, and it took 400 theaters away because they didn’t want to have to spend the kind of advertising money to support the picture on the East Coast, ’cause they thought it was going to be a huge bomb. That’s the facts. Now, part of the reason for that is that they had an R-rated high school movie with, you know, masturbation, abortion, dope smoking, tough language – albeit funny – and they figured, first of all, kids under 17 might not be able to get in – although I never met one under 17 that didn’t see the picture – and I think they thought, ‘This is just going to be another one of those nasty little high school movies that wasn’t nice,’ like American Graffiti was nice.”

The reaction to Fast Times from critics was definitely not nice. Joe Baltake, Philadelphia City News: “The problem with Fast Times is that it has no central nervous system because the idea about an ‘undercover’ student has been eliminated. Without this device, the movie is merely a pointless expose. It is also singularly unfunny and curiously listless. Heckerling’s pacing is way off and uninspired, to say the least.” Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun Times: “It clunks to a halt now and then for some heartfelt, badly handled material about pregnancy and abortion. I suppose that’s Heckerling paying dues to some misconception of the women’s movement. But for the most part this movie just exploits its performers by trying to walk a tightrope between comedy and sexploitation.” Daily Variety: “The nice thing is that Crowe and director Amy Heckerling have provided something pleasant to observe in all of these characters though they really are sadly lacking in anything gripping.”

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Cameron Crowe needed to get out of L.A. for a while. With a buddy in tow, he took a road trip to Arizona for the wedding of a fellow journalist and recalls, “I was really depressed because they sort of dumped the movie out. There were a few bad reviews that came out from the establishment press, and I just wanted to get out of town. I just wanted to drive across the country. We stopped in Arizona, and it was a Saturday night after the Friday the movie had come out and it was like, yeah, let’s just go by this theater that’s running it and see what it’s like. Let’s see what that empty theater will be like. Well, we drove by the theater, and it was packed. We went inside, and there were kids that had already seen the movie two or three times. They had checkerboard Vans like Sean Penn’s. They were talking like Sean Penn. People were laughing their ass off at stuff that I didn’t even know was funny.” Popular demand prompted Universal to expand the film to over 700 theaters its fourth week of release. The box office for Fast Times would total $27 million in the United States.

Looking back at Fast Times at Ridgemont High almost twenty years later, Heckerling mused, “I love the theme about these kids having to deal with sex and jobs and things that people twenty years older than them are still dealing with. They were pushed into such a grown-up world and they were still children basically. Everything was going too fast for them. It was about growing up too quickly and having to deal with these things at a very early age and how these kids pulled through it or didn’t pull through it.” Linson offered, “And again, everybody misjudging Cameron’s script, because it read so funny and light that when you get underneath it you got into the truth of it … it had some great edgy truth to it. So, I think that’s why the picture survived for so many years, because even today, people can see it fifteen years later or twenty years later and it’s still got that like, kind of edgy, like ‘whoa’.”

Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982 Ray Walston

Opinion
Even the most crotchety critics of Fast Times would probably amend their 1982 reviews to admit how innocuous the movie plays today, while also allowing how exceptional the cast became (Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and in bit parts, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz and Nicolas Cage). But to stop there – as the film continues to win fans that weren’t even born when the movie was in theaters – would be sprinkling it with faint praise. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a masterpiece for one clear reason: because Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling infuse just about every scene with an honesty – laugh out loud, quirky, tender, brutal – that few movies trying to appeal to teenagers ever aspire to. Factor in those career defining moments from the cast, dialogue that’s come to define a generation and one classic moment after another and it’s difficult to overstate the impact the film continues to have for me.

Now, the soundtrack is a pretty ragged mix of the ‘70s rock (Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne) the producers felt “the kids” were still listening to and the New Wave (The Cars, The Go-Go’s, Oingo Boingo) that Heckerling saw coming; I still don’t think it’s a very intelligible playlist. But like all the great films, Fast Times offers something new with each viewing. The duels between Sean Penn and Ray Walston are like highlights from a great stoner comedy, but Heckerling and Jennifer Jason Leigh refuse to soft peddle the sex, opting for stark realism. Small details – like students sniffing fresh mimeographs – stand out as much as showstopper moments, like a topless Phoebe Cates rising out of a pool in one of the great fantasy sequences of all time. Hilarious. Smart. Cutting edge. Most impressive is how the filmmakers use Spicoli’s class clown to ultimately suggest there might be more to growing up than sex and consumerism.

© Joe Valdez

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Sources
“Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. MCA/Universal Home Video. 1999

Fast Times Strives Hard for the Right Teen Touches” By Dale Pollock. Philadelphia Inquirer, August 16, 1982

The Directors: Take Four. By Robert J. Emery. 2003

Sean Penn: His Life and Times. By Richard T. Kelly. 2006

Tags: Based on novel · Brother/sister relationship · Coming of age · Dreams and visions · Famous line · High school

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sir jorge // Jun 11, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    this movie had so many great one liners, as well as some great performances. good review too, man you’re right on!

    Quick, someone give this blogger an award!

  • 2 Adam R // Jun 11, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    I used to be indifferent to this movie, but revisited it this year and have since seen it multiple times. I love Stacie’s story, it’s so heartbreaking and is enhanced by Heckerling’s decision to play Jackson Brown’s “Somebody’s Baby” during her sex scenes. At first it seems like just a popular 80s song to play in the background, but when you listen to the lyrics it’s obviously about a young prostitute. I’ve always liked Brad’s final involvement with his sister, it’s a great older brother moment.

  • 3 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jun 12, 2008 at 1:12 am

    Must be more of a guy thing, because I agree with Nicholas Sheffo: never good, always overrated.

  • 4 Nayana Anthony // Jun 12, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Well…. not a total guy thing. I’m pretty damn girly, and I love this one.

    Absolute classic.

  • 5 Daniel // Jun 12, 2008 at 10:55 am

    It’s a shame Heckerling wasn’t able to carry the torch for female comedy directors. She directs a movie every 5-7 years with diminishing returns, save for Clueless in 1995.

  • 6 Craig Kennedy // Jun 16, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Seeking to prove the theory “better late than never” I’m going to ring in on this one long after everyone has moved on to something else.

    This movie was a seminal part of growing up for me.

    The thing about the soundtrack: though it does seem like an odd mix, I remember music actually being that way in junior high. For me anyway. I listened to Led Zepplin and that kind of stuff because of my older brothers, but then there was the Go-Gos and The Cars and that crowd.

    Anyway, another great review, Joe.

  • 7 shahn // Feb 12, 2009 at 9:00 am

    I also have to chime in about the music.
    I suspect I’m a bit older than you, because I remember this time really well. New Wave didn’t have all the kids putting aside their Yes and Led Zeppelin LPs at the first beat of a drum machine. It was a long, slow progression for it to spread (due to availability as much as the new sounds) and it wasn’t uncommon for people at that time to still listen to both.
    Nice review!

  • 8 AR // Feb 13, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Haven’t seen this in ages, but I always liked it.
    John Hughes’s teen movies will always be my sentimental favorites, but Fast Times… is pretty honest and unsentimental through & through. It pretty much nails the awkwardness of adolescence and actually has kids trying to balance things like homework and jobs with a social life–OMG realism!
    As far as the music, interesting point. I’m realizing that I never paid attention to the music, whereas it’s often a secondary character in 80’s teen flicks.

  • 9 Joe Valdez // Feb 13, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Jorge: I love this movie too, it’s one of my favorite of the ’80s. I’m going to go rehearse an acceptance speech now. That was a great compliment and it made my afternoon. Thanks!

    Adam: Your comment is interesting because I think we have similar tastes, yet I don’t like the ’70s rock in the film, including that Jackson Browne tune. I feel the movie would’ve been better if Heckerling used the punk and New Wave she wanted to. But that’s got to be the most memorable “first time” scene ever shot. Stacy is a great character and Jennifer Jason Leigh just knocked her out.

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: Before we can say this was the first guy movie ever directed by a woman, I think we should consider that several women I know did enjoy Fast Times and continue to for whatever reason (it may just be nostalgia, or the historic casting).

    Nayana: Thanks for giving my argument somewhat of a leg to stand on!

    Daniel: Why there aren’t more successful women directors is worthy of an investigative feature and has been at various times throughout the years. My belief is that directing is a commanding job that many men as well as women just aren’t interested in doing for the long run. In Heckerling’s case, if you only direct one movie every five years and every other one is a misfire, it has to hurt your career.

    Craig/ shahn: There’s an anecdote Cameron Crowe tells about why “Kashmir” ended up on the soundtrack when Damone specifically tells the Rat to put Led Zeppelin IV on during his date with Stacy. The filmmakers had to compromise with Led Zeppelin, sort of boning the continuity of the scene, but it all worked out if you imagine that the Rat just fucked up on his date and played Physical Graffiti by mistake. I feel the same way about the soundtrack as a whole, which was a compromised effort that lacks the energy or consistency of Valley Girl, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the director got to pick their playlists. But you are right in that of course, kids have always and will always listen to more than one type of music at a time. Thanks for commenting!

    Amanda: Very insightful comment. Thank you for sharing that. I think the reason Fast Times is so unsentimental is that almost everyone involved was only in their 20s. On the DVD behind the scenes feature, Heckerling mentions that Art Linson thinks he’s a teenager, while Phoebe Cates was 18, so pretty much everyone involved were not looking back at high school through nostalgic goggles. They were unflinching if nothing else.

  • 10 ERIC // Sep 17, 2015 at 5:03 am

    Who is the actress in the brown shirt, that’s sitting behind Mr. Hand when he’s standing in the classroom scene with his finger in the air?

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