40 years ago, ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ defined an era

The best of the racy teen comedies perfectly preserves the fashions and attitudes of the ’80s.

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Worldly Linda (Phoebe Cates, left) schools the less experienced Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on sex and relationships in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Universal Pictures

When we talk about “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a flurry of funny, R-rated moments spring to mind:

  • Judge Reinhold’s Brad fantasizes about Phoebe Cates’ Linda emerging from the backyard swimming pool in slow motion and unclasping her bikini top to the sounds of the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo,” only to have the moment interrupted in humiliating fashion when the real-life Linda walks in on him in the bathroom and catches him … well. Thinking about her.
  • Sean Penn’s Spicoli showing up late for American History class and saying his new schedule is totally confusing, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) ripping up said schedule and saying, “I think you know where the front office is,”and Spicoli blurting out,”You d---!”
  • Linda using a carrot in the school cafeteria to give the less experienced Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a lesson in oral sex.

Etc. etc. “Fast Times,” which was released 40 years ago in August of 1982, is filled with nudity and frank sexual talk and raunchy, explicit humor (and a couple of homophobic “jokes” that would not play in today’s world)—but upon further review, it’s also a surprisingly serious film at times, with some straight dramatic scenes addressing the issues of teenage sexuality, pregnancy and abortion in empathetic fashion.

Unlike many of the mostly forgotten teen comedies of the 1980s, e.g., “Porky’s,” “Spring Break,” “Private School,” “Private Resort,” “Hardbodies,” “Homework,” “Losin’ It,” and we could continue but we won’t, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” continues to resonate as a substantial time capsule of the period, capturing the music, the fashions, the attitudes and the social mores of the time. Thanks to the dialogue-rich screenplay by Cameron Crowe (adapting his own book) and the pitch-perfect direction by Amy Heckerling—not to mention a spectacular cast that included three future Oscar winners and a host of other young talents—“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is maybe the best ribald teen comedy ever made.

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Using a cutout of Deborah Harry as his love interest, Damone (Robert Romanus, right) demonstrates smooth dating techniques for Rat (Brian Backer).

Universal Pictures

For those who have never attended Ridgemont High or haven’t been in class for a long time, a little primer. In 1981, a young writer named Cameron Crowe published a book called “Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story,” which told of his experiences going undercover and posing as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego. (Crowe changed the name of the school and the names and some identifying characteristics of some students; many of the students later claimed they knew exactly who Crowe was and what he was doing.) A year later, Universal Pictures released the fictional film adaptation, with Amy Heckerling making her feature debut and Crowe writing the screenplay. The story centered around one year at Ridgemont High, featuring:

  • Phoebe Cates as Linda Barrett, who doesn’t have time for high school boys, as she’s involved with “Doug,” who works for an airline in Chicago.
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh as incoming freshman Stacy Hamilton, whom Linda takes under wing to offer sex and relationship advice.
  • Judge Reinhold as Stacy’s big brother Brad, a senior and Big Man on Campus.
  • Robert Romanus as Damone, who, unlike most of the other characters, doesn’t work at the mall and instead makes his cash scalping concert tickets.
  • Brian Backer as Mark “Rat” Ratner, a sweet and sexually inexperienced kid who works at the movie theater in the mall and has a crush on Stacy.

The amazing supporting cast includes Sean Penn in his famous, very early-career, scene-stealing performance as the stoner Spicoli; Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards as Spicoli’s pothead buddies; Ray Walston as the strict Mr. Hand, who teaches American History and greets students by saying, “Aloha”; Amanda Wyss as Brad’s girlfriend and then not-girlfriend, Lisa; Forest Whitaker as the football star Charles Jefferson; Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola) as “Brad’s bud,” and Vincent Schiavelli as the cheerfully ghoulish science teacher Mr. Vargas, who takes his students on a field trip to the morgue. (Vargas, spotting Spicoli as they enter the morgue: “Hey, [are] you in my class?” Spicoli: “I am today!”

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In his starmaking role as stoner Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn (center) had sidekicks played by Anthony Edwards (left) and Eric Stoltz.

Universal Pictures

From the opening credits sounds of “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Go’s, as we see many of the main characters at the mall, which is populated by a movie theater, a game arcade, a pizza parlor, Florsheim Shoes, B. Dalton, Pacific Stereo, even a Licorice Pizza record store, “Fast Times” is a bright color snapshot of the early 1980s. Ron Johnson (D.W. Brown), the 26-year-old Lothario who works at Pacific Stereo, picks up Stacy (who tells him she’s 19) in a 280-Z. Linda notes to Stacy that “three girls here at Ridgemont … have cultivated the Pat Benatar look” this school year. When Mr. Hand distributes coursework to his students, they all sniff the freshly mimeographed paper.

A few other notes for class:

  • “Fast Times” ends with one of those epilogues that tell us what happened to the characters. (“Mike Damone. Now working at 7-Eleven. Busted for scalping Ozzy Osbourne tickets.” “Linda Barrett: Attending college in Riverside. Now living with her Abnormal Psych professor.”) This was a trend made popular by “American Graffiti” and seen in films such as “Stand By Me,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “Stripes.”
  • In Crowe’s book, the character of Mark “Rat” Ratner was based on Andy Rathbone, who would go on to fame as the author of many of the “For Dummies” manuals. (Rathbone claimed he was actually the one who ordered a pizza in class, Spicoli-style.)
  • Among the actors who auditioned or were considered for roles in the film: Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Hanks, Diane Lane, Matthew Broderick, Jodie Foster, Ellen Barkin, Carrie Fisher, Rosanna Arquette and Ally Sheedy. The great Fred Gwynne of “Munsters” and “My Cousin Vinny” fame was offered the role of Mr. Vargas, but reportedly turned it down because of the movie’s explicit sexual content.

Much of “Fast Times” is about Stacy’s determination to become sexually active. After losing her virginity to Ron in the dugout of a baseball field, she goes on a date with Rat, but then finds herself attracted to the slimy Damone, who impregnates her. This is when the wacky hijinks in “Fast Times” take a back seat, as Stacy tells Damone she’s pregnant and he lashes out at her before agreeing to pay half the $150 abortion fee and give her a ride to the clinic.

When Damone weasels out, Stacy asks Brad for a ride to the bowling alley—and then zips across the street to the clinic. After the procedure, Brad is waiting for (in front of a “School Crossing” sign, reminding us this girl is just 15 and starting her life) and says, “OK, it’ll just be your secret. You all right?” For all his goofy posturing, Brad turns out to be a great big brother. (And Linda’s actually a really good friend who is fiercely protective of Stacy and puts Damone in his place in rapid fashion.)

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Brad (Judge Reinhold) is humiliated by the pirate costume he has to wear at his fast-food job.

Universal Pictures

By the end of the school year and the start of another summer of working at the mall, Stacy says, “Linda, I finally figured it out. I don’t want sex. Anyone can have sex. … I want a relationship. I want romance.”

“You want romance, in Ridgemont?” says Linda. “We can’t even get cable TV here, Stacy and you want romance.” And there’s the good guy, Rat, across the mall, and Stacy waves him over. Once again, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is SO early 1980s (“We can’t even get cable TV here”) but also smart and even sweet.

In 2020, an all-star cast assembled for a Zoom virtual table reading of the “Fast Times” script for charity, with Julia Roberts as Stacy, Matthew McConaughey as Damone, Jennifer Aniston as Linda, Ray Liotta as Mr. Hand, Brad Pitt as Brad, Dane Cook as Mark Ratner and Shia LaBeouf as Spicoli. (Sean Penn was “Mr. Pizza Guy.”) It was a lot of fun and served as a great reminder that some 40 years later, most of us can relate to at least one of the students or teachers at good ol’ Ridgemont High.

Several area theaters will present 40th anniversary screenings of the film on Thursday, featuring a new Q&A between Amy Heckerling and Paul Thomas Anderson, whose “Licorice Pizza” was inspired by “Fast Times.”

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