The Other McCain

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An R-Rated Time Capsule From 1982

Posted on | March 22, 2021 | Comments Off on An R-Rated Time Capsule From 1982

There are basically two things everyone remembers from Fast Times at Ridgemont High — Sean Penn as the dopehead surfer Jeff Spicoli and the famous topless fantasy scene with Phoebe Cates. Along with The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it was one of the classic teen movies of the 1980s, establishing a formula — a rock music soundtrack, an ensemble cast and a plot that wasn’t really much of a plot.

Released in 1982, Fast Times was based on a book by Cameron Crowe. A prodigy who graduated high school at age 15 and then became a journalist for Rolling Stone, Crowe decided at age 22 to go undercover in the guise of a student named “Dave Cameron” at San Diego’s Clairemont High School during the 1978-1979 school year. This is an important point — while we think of Fast Times as a phenomenon of the Eighties, the teenage scene on which it was based actually happened in the late 1970s.

Because I graduated high school in 1977, there is a definite familiarity to the culture depicted in Fast Times, even though the movie is set in affluent suburban southern California rather than the redneck Bible Belt environs of Douglas County, Georgia. The casual attitudes toward sex depicted in Fast Times were generally more casual than among most Georgia teenagers at the time, but still that attitude was not unknown among my peers (for myself, I’ll invoke my Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination). Very early in Fast Times, this theme is established as Linda Barrett, the Phoebe Cates character, encourages Stacy Hamilton, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, to flirt with an older guy at the pizza restaurant in the mall: “Go for it! He’s cute. Just take his order. Look him in the eye. If he says anything remotely funny, just laugh like you’ve never heard anything so funny. And smile!”

The guy, who works as an “audio consultant” at the stereo store in the mall, is 26 and Stacy is only 15, but she tells him she’s 19. After the guy gets her phone number, Stacy is encouraged by Linda to pursue him: “Stacy, what are you waiting for? You’re 15 years old. I did it when I was 13. It’s no huge thing. It’s just sex.”

This attitude — “It’s just sex” — was perhaps not the majority opinion among teenage girls at the time, but it wasn’t rare, either. Doing it at age 15, or even 13, wasn’t viewed as unusual, and there were indeed girls like Linda, a high school senior who didn’t date guys her own age, but instead had an older boyfriend (“fiancé”) who worked for an airline.

Watching Fast Times again over the weekend, I was struck by how much of the film’s plot revolves around sex. The scene in which Stacy has sex with Mike Damone had to be edited after the first screening because the ratings board wanted to give it an “X.” The final version was just barely under the limit for an “R” rating but, to be quite honest, I’d entirely forgotten that Leigh appears topless in the movie.

Did you know that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s father was the actor Vic Morrow? And that she is actually of Jewish ancestry? I didn’t pay much attention to her in Fast Times, and was instead captivated by Phoebe Cates as Linda, stepping out of that swimming pool to a tune by The Cars: “Hi Brad, you know how cute I always thought you were.”

It was just a stupid teen movie, but Fast Times at Ridgemont High is worth watching nearly four decades later, as a sort of time capsule of a bygone era. One of the best scenes in the movie is when nerdy Mark “The Rat” Ratner seeks advice from Mike Damone about how to win his dream girl — Stacy — who is in his biology class:

Damone: This is what you do — start from the minute you walk into biology. I mean, don’t just walk in. You move across the room. And you don’t talk to her. You use your face. You use your body. You use everything. That’s what I do. I mean I just send out this vibe and I have personally found that women do respond. I mean, something happens.
Ratner: Well, naturally something happens. I mean, you put the vibe out to 30 million chicks, something is gonna happen.
Damone: That’s the idea, Rat. That’s the attitude.
Ratner: The attitude?
Damone: Yeah! The attitude dictates that you don’t care whether she comes, stays, lays, or prays. I mean whatever happens, your toes are still tappin’. Now when you got that, then you have the attitude.

This is entirely valid, as is Damone’s famous “Five Point Plan”:

First of all Rat, you never let on how much you like a girl. “Oh, Debbie. Hi.”
Two, you always call the shots. “Kiss me. You won’t regret it.”
Now three, act like wherever you are, that’s the place to be. “Isn’t this great?”
Four, when ordering food, you find out what she wants, then order for the both of you. It’s a classy move. “Now, the lady will have the linguini and white clam sauce, and a Coke with no ice.”
And five, now this is the most important, Rat. When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.

Take notes, kids. This will be on your final exam.

UPDATE: Not to turn this into Adam Sandler’s “Hanuhkah Song,” but my mention that Jennifer Jason Leigh is actually Jewish prompted one commenter to mention that Phoebe Cates is also Jewish on her father’s side (originally Katz), although her mother is Filipina. Of course, Sean Penn is Jewish on his father’s side, and I suppose someone will go through the entire cast this way. I remember a conversation with Andrew Breitbart: “Do the Jews run Hollywood? Yes. So what? Next question.”



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