Female Filmmakers: Past, Present and to the Future – Amy Heckerling and ‘Clueless’


1985 European Vacation Chevy Chase Amy Heckerling

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Story by Maria de Guzman / Contributing Writer

March is Women’s History Month, and during this exciting transitional period of Hollywood where there continues to be demand for diverse stories told by women, it’s important to consider the kinds of stories women have told in order for us to look forward to what they could tell next. Each week, I will be highlighting a different female director and her directing style, as well as examining one of her most popular works.

This week’s female filmmaker is Amy Heckerling and her quintessential ’90s movie, “Clueless.”

A lover of classic Hollywood films from childhood, Heckerling knew from a young age that she wanted to be a director. Throughout her freshman year of high school, she sat next to a boy who would copy all of her work. One day, they were instructed to write about their future aspirations. Heckerling wrote that she wanted to be a writer for “Mad” magazine, and the boy sitting next to her wrote that he wanted to be a film director.

“And it made me so angry because I really, really loved movies more than anybody, and why couldn’t I do that?” Heckerling reflected in a feature for New York Magazine. “And this is the guy who copied off me!”

Heckerling attended high school in the late 1960s, a time when the mainstream Hollywood films that she wanted to make were made exclusively by men. In addition to her lack of connections to the film industry, she thought a career in film would be near impossible. Despite her apprehension, she set her sights for New York, where she pursued a BA in directing and film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Heckerling then went on to get her master’s at the American Film Institute.

Even with her motivation and prestigious education, Heckerling’s relationship with Hollywood hasn’t always been the greatest. She had a hard time finding and landing a directing job in Hollywood, fulfilling her creativity with short films. Her most notable early work is her 1978 short film, “Getting It Over With,” a comedy about an 18-year-old girl who wants to lose her virginity before the end of her teen years. Heckerling’s short film explored the complexities of female sexuality and teenage life, which really set the stage for her first feature film, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Based on the 1981 book of the same title by Cameron Crowe, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is an ensemble coming-of-age comedy that follows Stacy Hamilton and her friends as they navigate through the three popular high school vices: sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The film was a critical and commercial success. Not only did it establish Heckerling as a Hollywood director but also launched the careers of future three Academy-Award winners: Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker.

Despite the overwhelming success of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Heckerling’s later film ventures were abysmal critically and commercially. She later served as a producer, writer and occasional director for the TV version of “Fast Times.” Beheld as a sanitized version of the film, it was considered a flop and lasted for only seven episodes.

Her career appeared to take a steady incline with the release of 1989’s “Look Who’s Talking,” a romantic comedy starring Kirstie Alley and John Travolta. The film was a major hit, spawning two sequels: “Look Who’s Talking Too” and “Look Who’s Talking Now,” the latter of which she only served as an executive producer.

Even with the success of the 1989 film, Heckerling’s return to her element came in the form of 1995 classic, “Clueless,” a reimagining of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Starring then-teen sweetheart Alicia Silverstone, the film follows high school socialite Cher, who plays matchmaker for her two teachers and new student Tai Frasier.

Upon its release, “Clueless” struck a chord with teenage girls. Teenage fashion in the late ’90s was suddenly a myriad of plaid skirts, knee-high socks, oversized jackets and flannel. The film is still ubiquitous in today’s pop culture climate, especially with the sudden resurgence of ’90s nostalgia. There are social media accounts and Buzzfeed listicles dedicated to the film. Today’s celebrities have also paid homage to the film, most notably Iggy Azalea, whose music video for “Fancy” pulled inspiration from the Heckerling classic.

Nostalgia aside, this film should be known for more than just its fashion, iconic lines (“As if!”) and everyone’s undying crush on Paul Rudd. Underneath the pink and bold title cards, “Clueless” is a subtle feminist film that showcases the importance of female friendships, consent and growing up.

Cher may seem like a ditzy blonde who only cares about shopping, but she is actually incredibly intelligent in her own way. Taking after her litigator father, she uses her charm and the art of negotiation to convince her teachers to change her grades. She can recall certain lines from “Hamlet,” even if it’s the movie version with Mel Gibson. Cher even knows people well enough to play matchmaker with her teachers, which in itself requires social intelligence.

Cher has strong relationships with her friend Dionne and Tai, even if Cher’s relationship with the latter is a bit rocky in the second act of the film. Cher and Dionne are strong women who never let men take advantage of their bodies. Cher is a virgin who’s waiting for the right person. When Elton or another boy try to take advantage of her, she fights them off and gets herself out of the situation. Dionne repeatedly tells her boyfriend Murray not to call her “woman.” Tai is the only person who is truly boy crazy throughout the film, but if there wasn’t at least one character who was like that, it wouldn’t be a high school movie. Tai represents the girls in high school who want to be popular and want to find any boy to fall in love with her, but in the end, she really comes into her own without Cher’s influence and rules. And, she gets the boy of her dreams.

Much of Heckerling’s success comes from exploring the complexities of a teenage female’s life. Films like “Clueless” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” serve as a precursor for what coming-of-age comedies are supposed to be. Teenagers are flawed and make crazy stupid mistakes, but they’re intelligent in their own way. Each female adolescent has a variety of experiences that shape who they are, and it deserves to be represented in a way that isn’t stale or disrespectful.

The hope is that Heckerling will be remembered as more than just a teen-chick-flick director but as a woman who showcased the different ways a female can be strong, smart and independent.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Mamie Lomax, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

For more updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_Life.

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