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Let Her Be Horny: Talking Cinema with Amy Heckerling

An interview with the director of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Clueless," on the occasion of a New York retrospective.
Amy Heckerling
The films of Amy Heckerling reveal a heart guarded and tender, a penchant for the past without a whiff of the maudlin. Who could forget her debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Directed from Cameron Crowe's script, the 1982 film gave us frank portrayals of sexuality and the detailed minutiae of growing up, suspended in the hazy tedium of high school, all without condescension or patronizing. Totally righteous. Heckerling proved attuned to the particulars of comedy with her next feature Johnny Dangerously (1984), a waggish send-up of the 1930s gangster comedy. In its cheeky beginning, a 1935 title card reveals itself to be a real material object that crumbles when car crash obliterates its façade. With a darkened lash line, a young Michael Keaton puts forth his best James Cagney as the titular mobster whose identity and status are known to all but his ailing ma and brother, a rising assistant DA. There’s a language mangling rival boss (‘fargin cork soaker!’), excellent turns from Peter Boyle and Joe Piscopo, and anachronisms aplenty, including a Betty Boop style black-and-white cartoon PSA for young men entitled “Your Testicles and You,” an absurd and outrageous marvel.  
Heckerling is a shrewd director whose films take a different turn when she began to write her own scripts. Though familiar and classical in structure, they possess a keen spin, upending certain conventions, particularly notions about women. In hindsight, Look Who’s Talking (1989) can feel radical in its depiction of a single mother, one whose decision to have a child alone is met with constant criticisms by friends and parents quick to comment that she is neither ugly nor a lesbian, as if these are the only explanations for wanting to raise a child alone. Though a jilted lover, Kirstie Alley’s Mollie is neither petulant nor does she pine for married man who is the father of her child, famously voiced by Bruce Willis. She is refreshingly sensible and pragmatic professional woman who doesn’t lose it, even as dances around with 80s era John Travolta. Romantic comedies of today might take note.
Clueless (1995) of course has woven itself to cultural and cinematic fabric with the cling of an Alaïa dress. It is notable that Heckerling’s films rarely possess a true antagonist. “People are basically good,” Dan Ackroyd tells his son in Loser (2000). These idealistic words seem to form the characters’ cheery worlds, wherein the villains, hardly scary, are in on the joke. Brittany Murphy’s new girl Tai is quick to mend relations with Cher in Clueless and the modern day vampires of Vamps, the most recent feature from 2012, even forgo human blood for that of rodents. Goodie, the main character from Vamps, can be seen as extension of the Beverly Hills teen, if Cher suffered (or was saved by, depending on your point of view) a vampiric blood-sucking. Both characters are played by Alicia Silverstone. Like Cher before her, Goodie selflessly channels her energies toward guiding and nurturing a younger woman, here an 80s obsessed vampiress played by Krysten Ritter. Vamps finds the director more critical, dismissing technology, mocking reality TV stars, yet for all its grumbling, she serves up a touching ending. Vamps look to the past, old New York, and combined with Heckerling’s earlier works, which already contain intrinsic nostalgic as depictions of high school, one can sense a through line of hopeful anticipation, not only for her characters but perhaps for herself, an underrated auteur, ill served by Hollywood. Speaking with the director, one is immediately greeted with wit and candor of a lifelong New Yorker, of a woman working in an industry filled with far too few of them.
Starting today, the Metrograph theater in New York will give what will be, according to Amy Heckerling, her first retrospective ever.

Johnny Dangerously
NOTEBOOK: Given your fondness for Cagney-era gangster movies, it must have been a dream to pay tribute and parody them with Johnny Dangerously.  Could you talk about how that film came about?
AMY HECKERLING: Norman Steinberg wrote it and I thought it was hilarious. It was owned by Fox and they weren’t doing anything with it and I told them how much I loved it, and they were looking for something for Michael Keaton and things started to happen. I used to joke that it was a movie for people who like getting stoned and remembering the movies of the 30s and that was kind of a small audience. That was before people had DVDs. It was making fun of something that was very long gone in a very stoner-y, silly way. That picture may just have been a weird thing to have done, but it appealed to me. When it came time to screen it, there were things that the audience didn’t like. They wanted us to soften it and I didn’t want to. I’d rather have a wackier, edgier failure, but they weren’t interested in that. So suddenly he [Michael Keaton’s character]’s at a pet store and nobody gets killed anywhere. It got changed a lot.
NOTEBOOK: I have to ask about “Your Testicles and You,” the short PSA film within the film. Was that in the script?
HECKERLING: No, that was a new thing. That was my ex-husband [Neal Israel] and his writing partner Pat Proft. I felt it was not the right tone, but they loved it, so in it went. If people are laughing, I’ll take it, but I didn’t think it fit. But everything was changed around a lot.
NOTEBOOK: Michael Keaton sort of lampoons James Cagney, who gets referenced here and there throughout your movies.
HECKERLING: I’ve loved him since he was little. I was with my grandparents and they would watch old movies and I just went crazy for him.  I was little I didn’t know what the stories were or anything, but he ran around smacking people like Bugs Bunny. And as I grew up, I understood the movies and stories and acting and filmmaking, and every step along the way, it still works for me. If you see young people who never saw those movies and show them, they go wow. It’s not something they’ll say is creepy or cornball. No; he holds up.
NOTEBOOK: Here’s to hoping for a Cagney retrospective here at the Metrograph.
HECKERLING: Turner Classics said I could be a guest programmer and I suggested we do something on Cagney’s birthday.
NOTEBOOK: Are there any titles you consider underrated?
HECKERLING: I think Footlight Parade [1933]. He’s so adorable. He plays a director and he’s making these musicals that go with the movies that are out.  They’re short little musical numbers so he’s running around being crazy and has three amazing numbers at the end, and Joan Blondell is his long suffering secretary and he finally realizes she’s been there all along. I love them together.
NOTEBOOK: You also hosted a series for TCM of films directed by women, "1990s Mainstream Hits." You were coming up during that time. Were you and the other women advocating for each other? What was the climate like then?
HECKERLING: Hah. No. It’s the same. The same as far as the percentages. You go, ‘what’s it like being a woman director?’ and it’s 1981 and it’s like, I don’t know, I’ve never been a man. And to ask what it’s like to be a woman director, how many, 40 years later? Give me a break. Then you see the Senate is only x amount of women, that’s like 20 million times more than women directors. I talked to Joan Micklin Silver, who did one of the best movies ever, Hester Street [1975]. I was so sick of it and I just texted her, ‘What’s it like being a woman director.’ She said it’s like being blacklisted without the fun of going to commie meetings. That’s where I stand.
NOTEBOOK: You probably heard that report about how for the next few years no female-directed movies will be released by the major studios.
HECKERLING: Then you get the Academy is mad that the movies were too white, so they’re getting rid of anyone who hasn’t done a movie in a certain amount of time. Does having a vagina offset being white?
NOTEBOOK: What about women in front of the camera, particularly portrayals of young women?
HECKERLING: When Fast Times [at Ridgemont High] came out there was also Last American Virgin [1982], there was a movie right before us with a girl having an abortion. Not a shit load, but a nice good handful. They would say women’s stuff is on TV because there’s Rhoda and Phyllis and Mary Tyler Moore. Women stay home and put on the TV and the men go out to movies. There’s always something.
NOTEBOOK: Those films are very frank in their portrayal of sex and abortions, which are still somewhat taboo in American films today.
HECKERLING: When it first started there was the sexual revolution and women were fighting for the rights to get them in certain states and everyone was moving forward, but then things moved back. We’re demonstrating for the same things we fought for all those years ago? It’s controversial. And you can’t have it in movies and it’s like, what year is this? You keep thinking things will continue to move forward, but there’s always a reaction. Suddenly the moral majority or the Christian right or Tea Party say that’s an abomination.  In New York City and other cities it’s a no brainer, but you forget that other places are very different.
Clueless
NOTEBOOK: These days, many teen movies have taken the form of a sci-fi or genre movies. Do you think that the traditional teen movie has fallen by the wayside?
HECKERLING: They’ve kind of landed in indieland. Like Obvious Child [2014], and those movies where if you’re dying of cancer or if you have one person singing on the soundtrack and it doesn’t cost anything, you can be a young girl [in the movies]. If you want to have some nice clothes and a whole soundtrack, then you’re out of luck.
NOTEBOOK: Have there been any female led or directed movies you’ve admired or that have resonated with you?
HECKERLING: I was just afraid that you were going to ask what movies have you liked lately. Name a few.
NOTEBOOK: Diary of A Teenage Girl [2015] is a recent one that comes to mind.  
HECKERLING: That had a Law and Order: SVU moment to me, like—wait a minute! That’s really repulsive. That mother should be in prison, the guy should be arrested, and in my head I’m like everybody is doing things that are illegal, whether or not she’s horny. Let her be horny for someone in school.
NOTEBOOK:  Mean Girls [2004] is perhaps the most iconic one to follow after Clueless.
HECKERLING: That was a long time ago already. Then there was Legally Blonde [2001], and princesses and fairytale stuff, and Enchanted [2007] and yada yada.
NOTEBOOK: While girlhood and coming of age movies typically portray the characters as loners, me versus the world, your movies usually depict a female camaraderie. Us against them.
HECKERLING: In that particular story [Clueless], I wanted those two girls together. A black girl and a white girl. Their needs are the same. They have only slightly different personalities. It’s a world where, if racism were gone, what would they do the next day? They go shopping. In a world where everything’s good, what happens afterwards? What’s the story after that?
NOTEBOOK: You’re very candid about the obvious grievances against the industry and but your movies are ultimately optimistic in their worldview.
HECKERLING: I’m old and pessimistic, but somewhere underneath I’m not. There’s a way I see the world that’s a different universe.
NOTEBOOK: Your characters are also clearly likable and upbeat. Unapologetically so, which can be rare in today’s climate where mainstream movies tend toward anti-heroes and “unlikeable women.”
HECKERLING: There are characters that are entitled and I’m like, is that a joke? Am I supposed to like them or not? And I ask my kid and they say that’s how it is. But how am I supposed to feel?
NOTEBOOK: There’s also a certain irony or self-reflexivity that accompanies films these days.
HECKERLING: Right, but how ironic can things get?
NOTEBOOK: As of late, you’ve been directing episodes of television, to which filmmakers have been turning more and more. Are there any plans for a series of your own?
HECKERLING: That’s just a test. Can you do that for a month. But that ain’t what you’re, like, passionate to do. As much as everybody’s great on different shows, or you like the shows...but it ain’t me. It’s not bursting from my heart. It’s a puzzle; they have all of this, and you’re going there, and what’s a good style that fits with these things.

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