Monday, August 13, 2012

'Fast Times' Launched Some Careers

There may be nothing that grows quite so tiresome quite as quickly when one gets older as a teen sex movie.

I guess it's always been part of the moviemaking landscape. I mean, "Blackboard Jungle," which premiered in 1955, wasn't a comedy, the way "Fast Times" was, but it was definitely a part of that teen angst genre. And James Dean's three–movie career was all about the teen experience.

"Blackboard Jungle" and Dean's career come to me just off the top of my head. I'm sure I could think of others if I sat down and reflected on only that for awhile.

And I'm equally certain that even moviemakers of the silent period made movies that focused on the young and their journey from childhood to adulthood. It's an enduring human theme.

But when one is older, such tales become less relevant — unless they can be applied to the experiences of one's children and/or grandchildren.

Thirty years ago, when "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" premiered, I was in that age range, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I wasn't an adolescent — I would probably have been described as being more on the opposite end of adolescence by that time — but I wasn't that far removed from it.

Today, I guess, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is kind of like a time capsule, a glimpse into life as it was in the early 1980s. I don't know what most young people do for after–school jobs these days — I mean, it's tough enough for their elders to find work in this environment — but the same things that appealed to teens then seem to appeal to teens today, just in updated forms.

In 1982, teenagers congregated at shopping malls, where they could buy clothes, eat, go to the movies, play pinball games (or video games like Pac Man). In 2012, I guess it's much the same.

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was set — mostly — in two places: The mall where the principal characters either worked or congregated, and the school most of them attended.

Of all the bad boys in all such films, Sean Penn's stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli was probably the baddest. He was the embodiment of teen rebellion at that time. The trouble was that he didn't really have any idea what he was rebelling against.

And he never really seemed to get the upper hand with his nemesis, history teacher Mr. Hand (memorably played by Ray Walston).

Penn wasn't exactly a newcomer, but he hadn't been featured enough to be pigeonholed in particular roles. He has accepted a variety of roles in the last 30 years, and he has earned the praise of the critics for his talent.

It probably didn't require much skill to play Jeff Spicoli, but it must be said that Penn got the most from what he was given. He played a very different (and, in my opinion, more demanding) bad–boy role in "Taps" the year before, but it really was "Fast Times" that launched his career.

At the heart of the story, I suppose, was Jennifer Jason Leigh, who wasn't exactly a newcomer, either, having already been in movies and TV programs for a few years.

(I suppose there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the movie that really launched Leigh's career made its debut three weeks after Leigh's father, Vic Morrow, was killed while filming a movie of his own.)

Penn and Leigh even appeared together in a TV movie (along with future "Fast Times" co–star Anthony Edwards) the year before "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" came out. And they both kind of shot to stardom when "Fast Times" made roughly six times what it cost to make.

I guess what really made "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" different from previous coming–of–age flicks was the fact that it examined both genders plotting to make a connection with the opposite sex. Leigh, for example, was seen conversing with the more worldly Phoebe Cates frequently about such things as the way to perform fellatio.

Cates also assured Leigh (who lost her virginity early in the movie) that intercourse would not be as painful in the future.

Speaking of that, an interesting angle of the story unfolded in scenes in which Leigh had sex. The camera focused on the kinds of things she would have seen from her vantage point — the ceiling tiles or light fixtures or the graffiti in the room.

I'm not sure if any movie before "Fast Times" ever did that. Previously, the emphasis was on what the male could see from his vantage point — usually the girl's breasts.

(If you could go back and talk to audiences in 1982, most probably would have predicted that Cates would be the biggest star to emerge from "Fast Times." And, to an extent, that was correct — for awhile. Cates certainly got a lot of exposure — in more ways than one — from "Fast Times." She made many more movies in the '80s, but her productivity dropped off dramatically after that.)

The approach to sex for young males was described pretty well by Robert Romanus when he told his inexperienced buddy (played by Brian Backer) of "the attitude" a man must bring to such encounters.

"The attitude dictates that you don't care whether she comes, lays, stays or prays," he said. "I mean, whatever happens, your toes are still tappin'."

Backer and Romanus appeared in other movies after "Fast Times," but their careers never really took off the way the others' did.

Other young actors made cameo appearances — Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage — and went on to enjoy greater success.

It was a successful vehicle for several aspiring stars, even if the portrayals were cartoonish at times. But in between the sometimes comic caricatures were some missed opportunities to explore social issues in some depth. Leigh's character, for example, confronted Romanus after learning she was pregnant, and she seemed to object to the idea of aborting the fetus — but she voiced her objection only to her partner's accusation that "you wanted it as much as I did."

For the younger folks in today's audience, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" offers a peek into musical tastes of the early '80s. I can't say that I remember the Go–Gos being more than one–hit wonders (largely, that hit was "We Got the Beat," which opened the movie), but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were one of the groups that defined that time, and performers like Led Zeppelin, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, Don Henley and Stevie Nicks made names for themselves in the 1970s and continued to wield their influence in the 1980s.

Young viewers won't really get a feel for life in the '80s from watching this movie, but there is a particularly telling moment near the end that folks who remember that time may find amusing.

Working together in a pizza place in the Ridgemont Mall, Leigh told Cates she didn't want to have sex. "Anyone can have sex," she said.

When Cates asked her what she wanted, Leigh replied that she wanted romance.

"This is Ridgemont," Cates answered. "We can't even get cable TV here."