Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Whatever Happened to Phoebe Cates?

Thirty years after Fast Times at Ridgemont High her presence is still felt

Phoebe Cates
     A couple of weeks ago, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale played on the Sundance Channel.  It’s a wickedly funny examination of a divorce splitting up a family in 1980s Brooklyn.  Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are the parents, both writers, though his career has stalled and his pretentiousness
has replaced his initial promise, while her career is starting to take off and that dichotomy has poisoned the marriage.  Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline play their two sons, the older one hero-worshipping before being undone by his father and the younger one determined to confront his father and side with his mother.  It’s well worth watching. It’s Kline, though, who’s the revelation because of having to perform a number of physically very sensitive acts.

Phoebe Cates with Jennifer Jason Leigh,
Jane Adams, Alan Cumming...and Dexter
     Kline had earlier been in The Anniversary Party, a house party movie that plays with the illusion that the actors are actually playing versions of themselves.  Kline plays a young boy, who with his real-life sister and parents, are the best friends of the hosts.  In actuality, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates are his parents and play them and Cates is the best friend of the co-director/screenwriter and star Jennifer Jason Leigh.  I’m not sure Owen Kline has been in any other movies and that’s a shame.  However, it’s not as great a loss as his mother from the screen.

     Phoebe Cates will always be associated with Fast Times at Ridgemont High for those of us who came of age in the ‘80s even though she made other films.  She played Linda, the gorgeous, smart best friend of Leigh’s quiet, serious Stacy and her eager advice practically ruined Stacy’s life.  At the end, a viewer questions the extent of Linda’s experience after witnessing Stacy deal with a number of tragedies, including an abortion.  Brian Backer and Robert Romanus played two of Stacy’s suitors, though neither of their careers really went anywhere.  I don’t know if this movie could even be made today.  

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
     At the time, Fast Times was marketed as a second-rate teen sex comedy, but it took off because of Sean Penn’s wholly original performance as stoned surfer – the original ‘dude’ – Jeff Spicoli.  A number of actors emerged including Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage, and Eric Stoltz. Amy Heckerling directed and went on to direct another significant teen movie – Clueless.   That was charming and a bigger box-office hit, but it did not have the dark edge of Fast Times.  It was ethnically more diverse, but all of the characters were at least upper-middle-class whereas the characters in Fast Times were from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds; some of them had to work those mall jobs.  The relationships were complex because the teenagers made up their own subculture and basically authored their own lives while being both generous to their friends and self-serving.  The only significant adult was History teacher Mr. Hand, played by Ray Walston, who almost flunked Spicoli.  Cameron Crowe wrote the screenplay, based on his book that he researched while returning undercover to high school; that was another hook in the marketing as if the movie was a stunt.  

     Cates went on to do some other teen movies as well as stage work.  I saw her at The Goodman in Romeo and Juliet in the late ‘80s and she was excellent.  Although she is avid as Linda, she was able to play Juliet’s initial sheltered innocence all the way through her emerging womanhood with bravado.
Princess Caraboo
Her last significant roles were in Drop Dead Fred (a sort of horrible, awkward comedy that really feels British, probably because Nik Mayall played Fred, her obnoxious imaginary friend) and Princess Caraboo, a 19th century period piece comedy revolving around whether the Princess is authentic or a con artist.  In The Anniversary Party, she seems grounded and self-knowing.  The advice her character offers Leigh’s character is wise, though she’s very aware that the situation has layers of complication.  In recent red carpet pictures, she still looks beautiful, but also real.  She doesn’t look like she’s had work done and she seems fine with the fact that she chose marriage and motherhood over her acting career.  So, hats off to her, but I would like to see her in a new movie in the next five years. 


Gil Whaler said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gil Whaler said...