"Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

Upon the DVD release of the classic high school comedy, Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling talk about the X rating its teenage nudity earned.

Published June 26, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High"
Directed By Amy Heckerling
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, Ray Walston, Forest Whitaker and Phoebe Cates
Universal; 1.85:1 widescreen
Extras: Making-of documentary; commentary with Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe; more

Neither time nor John Hughes nor steady advances in American gross-out cinema (cf. "American Pie") have managed to diminish the achievement of a low-budget teen comedy now nearly 20 years old. In "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," screenwriter Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling, both working on their first film, accomplished several interesting things. For one, they made what is indubitably a classic of the genre, with both characters (notably Sean Penn as the stoner Jeff Spicoli) and comic set pieces (notably Judge Reinhold's masturbation interruptus scene) becoming the requisite touchstones for a generation. For another, the pair avoided easy social-comment clichis -- this is not a movie about class, race, rebellion or the negative effects of divorce on teens -- in favor of actual human difficulties, all in an insular, teen-only world presented with a gritty matter-of-factness. Jennifer Jason Leigh's experiments with sex, and her decision to have an abortion, are indeed made in an environment in which adults do not exist.

Besides some oddly stentorian foofaraw about the film's various Los Angeles sets and such, the DVD has two main attractions. The first is a genial documentary, with most of the cast (including, most affectionately, an aging Ray Walston) and crew discussing the movie, based loosely around what must be conceded was a fairly spectacular casting job. (Not since "American Graffitti" had a movie springboarded so many young stars to success, Penn, Reinhold, Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, Forest Whitaker and Phoebe Cates among them.) Crowe and Heckerling's amiable commentary will engross anyone who's been touched by the movie. "They were like little adults," says Heckerling of her characters. "It was a grown-up world but with little children in grown-up parts, and they weren't ready." Studio pressures are mentioned frequently; "It was supposed to be a teen comedy and they were getting crying, and abortions," Crowe says.

The pair get a little melodramatic -- "I thought we were going to be arrested for the straight sexual behavior we were filming," he comments -- but the film was slapped with an X rating, for full-frontal nudity and the bleakness of one sex scene. (It was trimmed and the movie eventually got an R for the nudity that remained.) This was back in the days before coaxing an X rating out of the MPAA was a marketing ploy. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is about a lot of things -- sex isn't always hot, sometimes it burns you anyway, life's not fair. Heckerling and Crowe are modest and never say it, but unlike most purveyors of teen comedies they were trying to tell their audience something real about their lives.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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