August 14, 2012, - 11:05 pm

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” Turns 30: Not Much to Celebrate

By Debbie Schlussel

Can’t let the day go by without noting something that should make everyone of my generation feel old: the movie, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” turns 30 today. It was a “coming of age” movie in many ways (none of them good), and it was rated “R” for a reason. Sadly, today, it would probably only rate a “PG-13,” if that.

I was just beginning my teen years when it came out, but it became a cult classic in my high school and college years. It was a revolutionary movie in in 1982, and not in a good way. While Sean Penn’s turn as the potheaded idiot, Jeff Spicoli, was funny, the other issues and themes the movie delved into were shocking in that more innocent time. Teen sex, abortion, drug-dealing, and other such behaviors were glamorized through characters played by Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the downward-spiraling America 30 years later, we’ve lost the culture war, and the issues that once shocked are now old news on shows watched by kids, such as “Glee,” “Teen Mom,” and fare on the deceptively-named “ABC Family Channel.” Those shows are pushing gay relationships, single motherhood, and other things the makers of “Fast Times” didn’t dare portray at the time.

But, in many ways, as I noted earlier today with regard to Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan Magazine, “Fast Times” didn’t contribute positively to America’s future. Instead, it helped contribute to glamorizing teen sex and drug use. And the results 30 years later aren’t anything to brag about. They’ve dragged America down, with half of American kids now born without a father, most of them to teen moms. In “Fast Times,” sex was seen as something casual with a quick abortion to get rid of the consequences. And while the abortion scene in the movie isn’t light, the movie shows the price of the abortion to be the biggest issue, not the life being extinguished and the two teen high school students ill prepared for the entire situation. The movie also glamorized disrespect for authority, and parents were nowhere to be seen. The movie pushed the envelope and defined deviancy down. Sadly, America has far too many Spicolis and too few Mr. Hands (Mr. Hand was played by Ray Walston) doing anything about it.

While some of the actors in “Fast Times” went on to briefly successful showbiz careers, the only one still acting in major roles is Penn, though his biggest consistent role is as imbecilic, anti-American dupe for Marxists, extremist Muslims, and other human rights abusing leaders throughout the world. Cates–who is three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter Chinese (her paternal grandfather was Chinese)–long ago retired form acting to raise her family with husband, actor Kevin Kline, and runs a successful Manhattan boutique. She went topless in a fantasy scene in the movie. Wonder how she’ll explain that to her kids. Judge Reinhold hasn’t been in anything big since the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies of the ’80s. And the guy who played Damone–well, I recently saw him playing a bit part in a “Cold Case” re-run. “Fast Times” doesn’t stand the test of time, and neither did they. “Animal House” was much better, much wittier.

I remember “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and now we see the consequences that Hollywood wrought on America with garbage like that, 30 years later. It’s not pretty. And it’s nothing to celebrate.

Sadly, those involved with the making of the movie think they actually did something to be proud of and remember. The longlasting consequences are something America will never forget . . . and from which it will never come back.

Watch the trailer . . .

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24 Responses

Spot on DS. I remember going to see it in the theatre. I profoundly remember it…I was traumatized by it because it was so raw. That was shocking to me as a teen (I believe we are the same age)…even as a Liberal (at the time).

Roger Ebert even was famously outraged by it. His panning review on it is still read I believe.

I liked the good parts of it but the raw parts were so intense for me as a new teen. No wonder I switched to art-house films soon after.

So correct on the abortion cost being portrayed as the worst part of the ordeal. Even in my early teens I saw the film and thought the Jennifer Jason Leigh character was a real weirdo dummy. I knew she was desperate and sold herself cheap in the film for male attention. I know other brainless females didn’t see it my way.

S: You’re right. He called it a “scuz-pit of a movie.”


Skunky on August 14, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    It was a recapitulation of the 70’s compacted into teenage coming of age movie. It trivialized abortion, drug use, and more. Phoebe Cates was an interesting selection for the cast, since she had recently done a Blue Lagoon ripoff that was more explicit than the original.

    Worry01 on August 15, 2012 at 12:20 am

    Sorry, but I missed the movie. It has been on TV many times, I ave tried to watch it but first commercial break I flip channel.

    Is it about punks who will never amount o anything dressed as entertainment? That was my impression…

    As goes... on August 15, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Oh, and I think a female directed it too. Amy Heckerling? I think it was her. She also directed “Clueless” with way more class.

Skunky on August 14, 2012 at 11:32 pm

Debbie Jennifer Jason Leigh is also Jewish (I know a relative of hers). Sean Penn is half Jewish. And Amy Heckerling is Jewish, too. Am Yisrael chai, I say.

A1 on August 15, 2012 at 12:02 am

I recently saw it for the first time and found that it was vulgar, boring and difficult to watch.

DS_ROCKS! on August 15, 2012 at 12:50 am

That’s right, A1. Teen movies often have very Jewish casts. This was truest in the 1980s and it is still generally true today (i.e. Hairspray, Charlie Bartlett, Adventureland, the upcoming The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

I think Phoebe Cates-Jennifer Jason Leigh is a great combo of two very attractive Jewish women, just like Natalie Portman-Mila Kunis in Black Swan.

dee on August 15, 2012 at 1:22 am

Well, I must say I still smile when I hear The Cars “Moving in Stereo” on the radio.

Blayne on August 15, 2012 at 7:34 am

Damone’s 5 point plan for scoring girls should not be under-estimated.

Steve Epps on August 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

That’s why I love this site. Debbie I believe that you and I are the same age and I like how you bring things like this up. I remember as a kid seeing this movie because my older cousins snuck me and my brother into the theater. I thought in my little teen mind that Phoebe Cates was gorgeous. Funny that I also thought that Sean Penn was a doofus back then. I guess so things never change. Oh and Skunky thanks for the link. You’re right Roger Ebert was snip back then and he still is today. Debbie keep up the good work because like I said this site rocks.

Ken b on August 15, 2012 at 11:50 am

thanks Debbie,
spot on about abortion in film. it was treated so casually. even “damone” said “its no big deal”.

Loretta on August 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? “Fast Times” had absolutely no influence on me. And I doubt it influenced a lot of people.

FrenchKiss on August 15, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Forest Whitaker was also in the movie, and won an “Oscar” like Penn later in his career. That being said, they both are left-leaning clowns…

Marc on August 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Debbie, I like your stuff, but I think you’re a little overboard on how much this movie contributed to lessening moral values. For one thing, the characters in this movie were not being portrayed as role models. It was just something to go laugh at and have a good time.

Jim Colorado on August 15, 2012 at 1:08 pm


    Just what I was thinking on the “overboard” stuff. One movie does not influece the way that society thinks. Besides, the intended audience at the time were teenagers not adults, and I believe they went into the film the same way that many of them went into “Animal House”. Neither were serious films, and most people coming out of them just laughed after it was over.

    A Reader on August 15, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Ray Walston as “Mr. Hand” was brilliant in a deadpan way. He had a Shakespearean background, as it shows. As for the allegedly bad influence of “Fast Times” on American culture, hey, let’s pull back on that. Two reasons:

First, movies aren’t nearly as influential on private behavior as many would have us think. Audiences are smart enough to tell the difference between a storyline and outright advocacy. They don’t see film as a game of “monkey see, monkey do.” What influences us most are genes and parenting — nothing else, save for maybe educational setting, comes close.

Second, “Fast Times” was fun. Lots of people think so anyway. Judge Reinhold says that to this day, people come up to him on the street and recite, word for word, whole passages of dialogue from that movie. And he’s astounded. Only fun movies get memorized like that.

Seek on August 15, 2012 at 1:21 pm

The film didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time. I shall instead be celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Poltergeist.” I still get a chuckle whenever I think of the climactic scene in which the wall of the children’s bedroom suddenly morphs into a giant vagina-shaped vacuum cleaner with a snake-like tongue. The Freudian implications of that alone are worth more discussion than why Ray Walston was arbitrarily given the name of Mr. Bill’s arch enemy for no particular reason.

Irving on August 15, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Personally, I think this was Sean Penn’s best role. He didn’t even have to “get into character;” he just had to be himself!

Say what you will about the Judge Reinhold fantasy scene, but Phoebe Cates coming out of the pool in slow motion was just so frickin’ hot! When the scene kept cutting back to him in the bathroom…er..pleasuring himself…could have done without that!

Alan on August 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm

OK, OK, sorry guys. But Phoebe Cates coming out of the pool…every guys’ dream.

Jeff_W on August 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Roger Ebert may be a liberal, but he often epouses fairly conservative values in his reviews.

I wonder, was Gene Siskel a conservative? His reviews were even moreso than Ebert’s. His review of The Silence of the Lambs seemed to pan the film for having too much violent/turgid content in it. He also decried the stereotypical portrayal of Jewish characters in films.

dee on August 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm

i thought the movie sucked except for phoebe cates comming out of the swimming pool.

BRUCE on August 15, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Great job on this Debbie, I especially agree on the core point, of contributing to the debasing and corrupting of our nations ethics and morals, by Hollywood examples.

I hope you’re wrong on “never come back”, but my fear is that that is so.

There is a moral high road that is likely as a choice soon, the choice between a dreg worse than in High Times, a cocaine dreg, at that, who grew up with felons and America hating terrorists as mentors, spent 20 years wasted with a fake preacher who preached racial bias, and America hatred, versus two exemplary successful men, who may well set a moral and ethical higher ground tone by leading by example, in November. These two very successful well spoken men, have the backgrounds, to be able to turn America around, from a broken society that is broken hearted too, to a society that is a winner, again, that can tell the difference between right and just plain wrong, that the current society is ill capable of.

The choice in November is simple, dregs of society or the best chance now offered for vast betterment of America, responsiblity, employment, and vastly improved ethics, if not perfection.

Jack on August 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I love you and agree with you on most analyses, Debbie, but you’re dead wrong here. “Fast Times…” is far superior to “Animal House”. Next to “American Graffiti”, this is the best comedy-drama ever made about high school students. “Animal House” has a lot slapshtick, much of which isn’t very funny. Sean Penn might have received the most ink from the film, but the performances of Reinhold, Cates, Leigh and Romanus were the real guts of the film.

NormCBS on August 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Good review? Only, I’m surprised Debbie Schlussel went as fas as being what I consider a “bible thumper” LOL….

Saroan7 on December 21, 2013 at 5:10 pm

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