Problematic Movies of the 80s | Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Recently, on a night when I simply couldn’t sleep, I turned my iPad on to Netflix and searched for something to watch. You know, something to just play until my eyes finally weighed like lead and I crashed. I landed upon the 1998 Samuel L. Jackson vehicle The Negotiator. In addition to being a fun potboiler, I was reminded how goddamned good Kevin Spacey is as an actor. I realized that in this particular case, I was not bothered by his real life sexual proclivities and simply enjoyed the movie.
I’m frequently stuck in mental overload trying to weigh the artist’s real life from his or her art. Say what you will but Altas Shrugged has its merits. Ayn Rand doesn’t, and if you, like me, read the book before knowing anything about her awful politics, you might’ve been able to separate the two. I still love Woody Allen’s earlier films, although Manhattan now gives me a bit of the skeeves. I also recently got sucked into a conversation about the dark toxicity in play in the (apparently) no longer funny, twisted morality tale known as Caddyshack.
Then Kavanaugh referenced some classic comedies of the ’80s in his bizarre, angry, hyper-partisan defense. He claimed his yearbook was attempting to emulate “Animal House, Caddyshack and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Again, it got me thinking: are these touchstones of my (and his) youth to be discarded on a pile of old VHS copies to be set ablaze? Are they really that problematic? And wouldn’t it be fun (and maybe a little depressing) to rewatch them as much through the lens of 2018?
I set up some rules for myself: they had to be comedies, they had to be made in the ’80s (my coming of age) and they had to be movies I could recall loving at the time.
Here we go.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Written by Cameron Crowe; directed by Amy Heckerling
Released in 1982.
I was 16 years old when this hit the theaters. What I remember of this movie was that I liked it, thought it was funny and mostly loved the character of Brad (played by a young Judge Reinhold.) The Spicoli character, played with stoner perfection by Sean Penn loomed large, and the fact that I got to see Phoebe Cates’ tits was a big plus. I saw it in the theater only once but it left a good impression upon my teenage brain. It felt authentic in many ways to my own high school experience as it was unfolding.
Upon rewatching it to see how potentially problematic the thing was, here are some takeaways:
Problematic Moments & Themes
In the first two minutes of the film, we see a high school guy tape a sign on the back of another guy that says “I Am A Homo” and later, Spicoli, in a dream sequence as he has won the big surfing competition calls his competitors “Fags.”
There are only two black characters in this thing: Charles Jefferson (Forest Whittaker) and his brother (known only in the credits as “Jefferson’s Brother”) This film is overwhelmingly white.
In the first 20 minutes, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a 15 year old mall worker, has sex in an abandoned baseball dugout with a 26-year-old dude. She subsequently has sex with Damone in her parents’ pool room, gets pregnant, has an abortion by herself and hides it all from her parents.
Does It Hold Up?
For me, yes.
While the film contains two instances of anti-gay language, there is no malice contained in the Spicoli comment. The first (the sign) is an example of simple assholery and is in no way central to the plot of characters in the intwining stories. No question that it gives pause (if it were the n-word, the discomfort would be worse, which says more about our acceptance of gay slurs than our apathy toward them) but the reality is that the movie taken as a whole, is not in the least homophobic.
The fact that there are no black characters is troubling, but there were and are high schools with few POC students. In the ’80s my high school had exactly four black students in the entire student body. This was a result more of geography (middle of nowhere, Kansas) than anything else. The fact is that the only high schools in America with more diverse populations are urban rather than suburban. Perhaps, because I am white and I went to a mostly all-white high school, it simply didn’t seem out of the ordinary in this case. Again, no racial animus is present in the film and Jefferson’s brother (unfortunate that the character was not given a name) is a stoner friend of Spicoli’s in several scenes.
If there is a difficult theme present, it is the pursuit of sex and the fact that most conversations in the film are about it. A 15-year-old girl having sex with a 26-year-old dude is troubling until you see that, in every case, it is the women in the film who are calling the shots, who have the most agency in the interactions. Stacy make decisions to have sex without coercion in every case. The boys are all fumbling idiots when it comes to the women and, in the case of the Faux Alpha Make that is Damone, his skill at sex with Stacy is so inept and premature that he seems flummoxed at the very idea of sex. Unlike, say, Sixteen Candles and its obvious date rape themes with the Geek, these are just American kids doing what we did in the ’80s — hanging out at the mall, trying to get laid (without having any concept what that might mean) and working shitty minimum wage jobs.
I understand that the idea of young people having sex makes you uncomfortable but the facts on the ground is that young people think about and get busy constantly. This isn’t new or unusual — high school is the pit of hormones, the very circle of hell when hair sprouts and boobs suddenly appear. Get over it.
Fast Times began as a Rolling Stone story by Cameron Crowe. He spent a year secretly embedded at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California under an assumed name (and in cooperation with the school’s administration) to gather stories for a non-fiction book with the same title. It feels like it, too. Unlike the spoofs of teens in high school and despite that fact that Nicholas Cage (credited as Nicholas Coppola in his first on-screen appearance) was the youngest actor on set at age 18, Fast Times isn’t a case of a bunch of adults making fun of the high school experience. It has an authenticity lacking in so many films about high school (in the ’80s or otherwise) that feels grounded in the real.
Watching this 36 years later cemented its charm and enduring quality. Like American Graffiti was a touchstone film about (some) high school kids in the ’50s, this is a pretty accurate snapshot of (some) kids in the ’80s. Additional plusses go to a woman director, a ton of the stars of the future in relatively unseen roles and the reminder that one could once get tickets to Van Halen for $15.
Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it
Fast Times at Ridgemont High gets a 3.
The Cannonball Run (1981)