Fast Times – Philadelphia Inquirer (1982)

‘Fast Times’ Strives Hard for the Right Teen Touches

Like dozens of movies every year, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is about teenagers and their eternal quest for sex, money, sex, drugs and sex. And fun. The folks depicted are the same folks that Hollywood spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to entertain.

Whether this movie succeeds more than most will be determined as the dollars roll in (or don’t) – but the curious story of the making of Fast Times probably tells more about the fast times in Hollywood today than it does about the fast times in Ridgemont High.

The whole story reflects why some films are made and others are not, why some succeed where others fail, why movies about teenagers can be the hardest ones to sell to teenagers, why women directors can have a tough time in a business dominated by men. With Fast Times, which opened Friday, Hollywood is looking right at its core audience, and it is not sure what it sees.

That is why Universal Pictures, which financed and is distributing the movie, has gone through 10 or 15 advertising approaches. That is one of the reasons that Fast Times originally received an X rating, only to have the studio eliminate most of the sexually explicit scenes. That is why Universal executives have spent the last three days wondering whether their studio’s $9 million cash investment will be lost, recovered or multiplied into a fortune.

The movie started out as a book. Cameron Crowe, who began writing for Rolling Stone when he was still in high school, thought it might be neat to go back—Marcel Proust as a Ridgemont senior. A publisher, David Obst of Simon & Schuster, was interested; an advance materialized, and soon Crowe was doing his time at a still-undisclosed Southern California high school.

Disguising himself as just another student with a backpack and dirty Levi’s, Crowe, now 24, quickly established his cast of characters: Brad Hamilton, the king of the fast-food fryer; Brad’s sister Stacy, who is eager for sex, not love; Linda Barrett, Stacy’s beautiful best friend who dates older men; Mike Damone, never without a cool “attitude”; Mark “Rat” Ratner, the schlemiel, and Jeff Spicoli, the surfer with a buzz in place of brains, whose anthem is, “Hey, bud, want to party?”

Before Fast Times really became a book, however, it sort of became a movie. Ned Tanen, president of Universal Studios, heard about the project and was intrigued. Sean Daniel, one of the studio’s young production honchos, met with Crowe and optioned the book before page one was written.

Fast Times (the book, not the movie) was published in October, got good reviews, sold moderately well as a $5.95 paperback and won Crowe a lot of publicity. (He already was famous—Crowe served as the model for the rock journalist who seduces Jacqueline Bisset in MGM’s Rich and Famous.)

Before the book’s publication, Crowe was at work on his screenplay. Fast Times (the movie, not the book) had to tell a story, and the book was episodic. Crowe wrote several drafts before Universal thought the screenplay was funny as well as authentic.

Crowe insisted he did not write Fast Times the book in order to be able to write Fast Times the movie—there was no plot in the book, which made it a tough sell as a movie.

“Universal just wanted to find out what kids were up to,” said Crowe. He told the studio that kids were up to fast food, fast adolescence and fast sex, a description Universal found sufficiently commercial to proceed with the film. Daniel said, “Our desire was to make a genuine movie for kids by kids. The inclination was not to be grown-ups imposing our views on their culture.”

But do youths want to confront their own culture? Movies such as Beach Blanket Bingo and American Graffiti seem to testify that they do. But that is the happy side of adolescence. What about the pregnancy fears, the abortions, the drugs, the pressures of being a teenager in a grown-up world?

That is what Crowe tried to put in his book and script, and that is what Amy Heckerling tried to get on screen in Fast Times, her debut as a feature director. Heckerling, 29 and a graduate of the American Film Institute, had to do some fast growing up of her own in Hollywood.

Heckerling is living evidence that it is not easy to be a female director in Hollywood. Two years ago, when the actors went on strike, Heckerling was three weeks away from directing her first film, a comedy she had written for MGM called My Kind of Guy. At the same time, another movie was being prepared at the studio, Whose Life Is It Anyway? starring Richard Dreyfuss.

By the time the three-month strike ended, both films had actors selected and sets built and costumes designed. “I knew what color every wall was going to be painted,” said Heckerling. But only one of the films was made, and it wasn’t My Kind of Guy.

“I suppose they thought Richard Dreyfuss was more bankable. I went into hiding for a year,” Heckerling murmured. Heckerling learned something as My Kind of Guy made the rounds of studios. “After a while, I realized I really wanted to do my movie. Every studio executive tried to influence the script to reflect their lives. After three or four studios, I didn’t know what I was doing any more. Now I know I have to keep my own vision. I’m not going to be that wimpy about things.”

Heckerling’s friends were worried when she kept passing up offers. “Get a film under my belt?” she said sarcastically. “I wanted to do something I was proud of.” In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, she found it. “I was real glad not to do a movie about a depressed or exploited woman or any of that garbage.”

Fast Times was a chance to do something different, to make a realistic comedy about men and women who happen to be 16: “The situations these kids have to handle were very grown-up, and they’re too young to handle it,” Heckerling said.

Although she is the daughter of an accountant, she always wondered how youngsters in movies could afford expensive cars and clothes. Those in Fast Times worked for their money, and Heckerling says she respected that. She also admired Crowe’s honesty in portraying the Ridgemont students—these youngsters were not buffoons or heroes, they were just youngsters trying to make it in an increasingly adult world.

Crowe remembered several of the Universal executives asking, “Is this funny enough?” It was an important question—laughs are essential for summer movies about teenagers. Bruce Berman, the Universal executive who supervised Fast Times for the studio, commented, “If it didn’t have fun, it wouldn’t have been made.”

Part of that adult world includes sex, and Fast Times was honest about that, too. The sexual encounters in the movie are brutally realistic, both physically and emotionally. Stacy, desperate to lose her virginity, goes from bad to worse in her choice of lovers, a look of incredulous disappointment on her face.

The ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America thought the scenes were a little too realistic, particularly a seduction scene in a baseball dugout and a sexual encounter in a pool cabana that featured full frontal male nudity. It gave Fast Times an X, the first time in recent years that a major studio film had been formally forbidden to anyone under 18. The X rating is the kiss of death at the box office—theaters won’t play the film, teenagers can’t see it and angry people write letters to the studio.

No major studio today will release an X-rated film. Heckerling was not really pleased with the cuts made in her movie—she thought it was important to show how alienating and awkward sex can be for teenagers. “I thought I was being a little chicken about the sex because I was a woman,” Heckerling said.

Crowe found the scenes to be too graphic for his taste. “I thought it was more important to show the awkwardness rather than the sex itself,” he said. Producers Art Linson and Irving Azoff wanted the sex scenes to be funny, not awkward.

What worried Universal was that youngsters didn’t like the sex. When Fast Times was tested, the young people in the audience sat in stony silence during the screening: “They seemed to be a little frightened of the sex,” Heckerling observed. “I wanted certain scenes to be funny, but to people in their teens, they’re too close to home.”

The sex in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is different from that in movies such as Porky’s, which usually cater to teenage audiences. Porky’s, a celluloid dirty joke, has sold more than $100 million worth of tickets. One of the reasons for those differences is Heckerling, and the awareness and insight she brought to the movie.

“Amy made the film she wanted to make,” said Crowe. “She was never one to put gauze on the lens and make it Little Darlings. There were a lot of people willing to tell her their way to do it, but she certainly had her own vision.” Crowe wanted realism, Universal wanted laughs, Azoff wanted music and Heckerling wanted to make her own movie.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer – Dale Pollock – August 16, 1982