Call it Fast Times at Ridgemont – the Sequel.
Ten years after journalist Cameron Crowe peeked into the private lives of Clairemont High School’s Class of 1979, the class he satirized in his book and film is preparing for its first reunion.
For the members of that class, the reunion promises to be a bittersweet affair. On the one hand, many of them were depicted as drug-taking, sex-hungry students – something many of them bitterly objected to. On the other hand, it surely won’t be boring. After all, this is the group responsible for creating that now-immortal slogan: “Hey, bud, let’s party.”
Crowe, a baby-faced 22 year-old writer who had penned pieces for Rolling Stone and Playboy, decided to re-enter the netherworld of acne, homeroom and food fights. A product of a strict parochial education, Crowe was aching to see how public schools differed. And he felt that, with his cherubic looks, he could get away with it.
Crowe’s curiosity led him to San Diego’s Clairemont High School, where he attended classes for an entire school year. He befriended his newfound “peers,” and eventually he was invited to their inner-sanctum of parties and pep rallies.
“My goal was to write about young people in American honestly. I wanted to depict what it was like to be 16 or 17 in the late 1970s,” Crowe said during a phone interview from his Santa Monica house.
The result was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a book and subsequent movie that were spicy slices of real Americana; the film became an instant cult classic, an arbiter of all things chic and geek for the modern adolescent.
The movie particularly dismayed America’s moms and dads with its portrayal of high schoolers as sexually active dope smokers. But it was labeled by many teens as an accurate if slightly exaggerated depiction of modern high school life. Fast Times offers a raucous rock and roll soundtrack and unflinching dialogue, but it takes an ultimately sympathetic look at a time that is so trying for so many.
“It’s going to be exciting to see how some of the people have changed, and how some haven’t changed,” commented Liz Duffy, who was class president, and who is chairwoman of the reunion committee. “This is a special reunion, if I do say so myself, though, I mean, how often do you have reunions that bring together people who were the basis for a famous movie?”
“In a way, our class is really legendary,” echoed Duffy’s classmate and friend, Pauline Lawrence. This reunion, she said, promises to be “pretty bizarre, and hopefully, a lot of fun.”
Duffy said she was not characterized by Crowe either in the book or in the film, “but I have a lot of friend who were. It’s funny when you really stop and think that there’s a movie out there that is essentially about your own life. Some of the people Cameron got to know while he was in Clairemont, who he then wrote about and who were seen in the movie, were not real pleased with how they were represented. But most people thought it was great, and that is was a fair and honest story.”
Chris Young said he is looking forward to the reunion. “I’m proud of this class, and I think we should all be proud of it. It will be a great party.”
Larraine Cameron agreed. “Though I don’t see a lot of people in my class like I used to, there is a bond there. We have something special between us, and this reunion will celebrate that.”
Much has changed for all of them since high school.
“I’m sure I don’t look the way I did in high school, for one thing,” said Michelle Ogie. “We’ve all changed, grown up. But we’ll still have fun.”
Robynn Roberts said she doesn’t give much thought to the fact that her class is legendary. But, she remarked, “I am excited about seeing some of these people again after all this time.”
Maureen Werner, who is also very involved in planning the reunion, said she didn’t know about the book or the movie until they came out. “When I first saw the movie, I thought it was really exciting and funny. I thought it captured the way it really was in high school,” said Werner, who still lives near Clairemont High School.
“When you’re a teen-ager, you think you’re special, and that your problems are different from everyone else’s. High school is a great time, but it can also be a painful, horrible time, especially back in the ’70s when no one really knew what was going on.”
Werner’s best friend then and now, Carole McGee said, while she enjoyed the movie when she first saw it, “I felt for some of my friends who I knew were being depicted in the film. I wondered about the feelings of some of the people who were being portrayed, and whether or not they really wanted their lives up there on the screen. It was probably a little embarrassing for some of them.”
Indeed. One member of the class, Andrew Rathbone, who, according to several class members and teacher was the inspiration for one of the characters, Mark “the Rat” Ratner, the school nerd, was so displeased that he threatened to sue Crowe.
Rathbone, who now writes for a local community newspaper, did not wish to comment on the matter. However, Rathbone’s charges never made their way to court, class members and teachers said.
In his own defense, Crowe said he “jumped through flaming hoops” to keep the students’ identities concealed.
Pam Ramsey, a journalism teach and the adviser to The Arrow, Clairemont High School’s newspaper, where Crowe spent a good portion of his time, remembers that time well.
“Most of the characters in the book and the movie were people in my journalism class,” explained Ramsey. “Andy (Rathbone) was most definitely ‘Rat,’ and there were several things that happened in our classroom that year that wound up in the book and in the film. For example, the cheerleaders, who were called spirit bunnies, really did come into the classroom one day to tell us they did not appreciate how they were treated by the students. They switched it around a little in the movie, but it really happened.
Ramsey said Crowe did take some liberties, however.
“He did embellish characters, combine characters, and he even made up some things, I’m sure,” she said, “but overall, I think it painted a pretty accurate picture of how things were. Cameron was a nice, likeable guy, and he did a pretty good job. The book isn’t great literature, and the movie isn’t going to win any awards. But it is realistic.”
Perhaps the film’s most indelible character, Jeff Spicoli, the definitive California surfer-due (played by Sean Penn in one of his earliest, most endearing roles), is really a concoction of several students at Clairemont, classmates contend.
Spicoli, as people who saw the film will recall, was the carefree surf addict who didn’t do much other than smoke pot and ride waves. No job, no studying, not worries, dude. Life’s a beach.
“That character (Spicoli) was sort of a magnified combination of a lot of surfers at Clairemont, but Spicoli didn’t really exist,” said Todd Floyd, Clairemont High School’s homecoming king in ’79 and captain of the football team. “I did know one guy who I think the character of Spicoli was based mostly on, and, though he was really into surfing and had that long, straight blond hair and everything, he was not a disruptive guy, and was not a total airhead who didn’t care about school. Cameron really just took these people he got to know, and then made his own … characters that were only a little like the real people.”
Floyd, like Rathbone, also harbors considerable bitterness against Crowe.
“Cameron didn’t ask us whether we approved of this idea, he just made friends with people, then turned around and made this great amount of money writing about our private lives,” Floyd said. “He combined so much fiction with fact, and that would have been OK, except that everyone knew that the movie was based on our class, so they thought everything that happened in the movie really happened.”
The character in the film that shared Floyd’s high school credentials, Floyd said, was not at all like him. “There was a scene in which Spicoli and the little brother of the football player who was supposedly based on me, wrecked my car. And that just never happened. Crwoe made the whole thing up. My mom saw that movie, and she was furios. She kept asking me, like everyone else did, “Is that you? Is that you?’
Crowe insisted the Fast Times project was not financially motivated.
“People have to know that my goal was to be a journalist and that no one made a killing on Fast Times,” Crowe said. “The project stretched on for a long, long time. The truth is, I practically went broke on this thing.”
Duffy, who heads the reunion committee, said although some of her classmates still feel lingering hostility toward Crowe, an invitation was sent to him through his publisher. Crowe has not responded.
“I think it’d be great if Cameron came to the reunion,” said Duffy, flashing a caustic grin. “Most of us haven’t had an opportunity to thank him for making our class so famous.”
Gary Dungca said he didn’t know Crowe, and wouldn’t recognize him if he saw him. “For someone who didn’t know everyone in our class, he sure made a big impact on us. Not all of it was positive, but I think most people you talk to from Clairemont are proud of the whole Fast Times thing. As long as people realize that it was part fictional…it could have been about any high school back then.”
Added Floyd: “The important thing is that everyone just has a great time at the reunion, and that we remember the good times we had. We shouldn’t dwell on the negatives. If Cameron wants to come, he’s more than welcome to.”
In other words: Hey, bud, let’s party – again.
Courtesy of the San Diego Union – Jamie Reno – March 25, 1989