Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times

Amy Heckerling Spotlight

Sean Penn’s Community Organized Relief Effort- CORE announced a live table read of the classic Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982). This got me to thinking about the film’s director Amy Heckerling, and her career that represents a rare fast track for all talented filmmakers, let alone female directors. 

Heckerling studied film at New York University and American Film Institute (AFI), and made a widely distributed short film, “Getting It Over With” (1978). She worked as an editor at Columbia Pictures Television and 20th Century-Fox Television. Writer-journalist Cameron Crowe’s screenplay was based on his undercover year as a high school student when he was a reporter at Rolling Stone magazine. There had been a bidding war for Crowe’s script, and the film’s budget was $5 million. The locations are varied - the mall, the classroom, the football field, fast food restaurants, their cars, parking lots, and suburban homes. There’s a car crash, a football game, awkward romance, an attempted robbery, and fantasy sequences. Music plays a significant part in setting the tone and mood; and the story, like adolescence, moves from comic banter, to romance, to poignant drama, and back again. No easy task for an experienced director, but this was Heckerling’s first feature film. 

It was also the first or one of the first feature experiences for much of the cast. Jeff Spicoli was the breakout role for Sean Penn, who had previously had a supporting role in Taps (1981) with Timothy Hutton. It was the screen debut of Forest Whitaker, and the first leading film role for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold. Phoebe Cates had starred in a prior Blue Lagoon (1980) knock-off called Paradise (1982), but this was her first comedy. Each character’s voice remains strong and distinct and the pacing of the film is extraordinary.  It's nearly forty years since the film came out, and  I can still recall Penn’s lazy drawled response explaining why he was late to class, “Just couldn’t make it on time” and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet sadness as Stacy, “I don’t even like the guy," and  Robert Romanus as Mike Damone, mansplaining flirting techniques to Matt Rattner: “I mean don't just walk in. You move across the room. And you don't talk to her. You use your face. You use your body. You use everything. That's what I do. I mean I just send out this vibe and I have personally found that women do respond. I mean, something happens.”  

Fast Times tonal switches from stoner and raunchy humor to drama didn’t win everyone over. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times gave the film just one star . By comparison,  Ebert gave Animal House, made four years earlier, four stars, and Porky’s (1981) - 1.5 stars. He also contrasted Fast Times unfavorably to both of those films: “If this movie had been directed by a man, I'd call it sexist. It was directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling -- and it's sexist all the same!” What he seemed to find offensive was not the fantasy bikini sequence with Cates (that became, according to legend, the most paused item on rental VHS tapes), but the “unnecessary element of realism” in Stacy’s sexual encounters. Ebert wrote that Jennifer Jason Leigh “looks so young, fresh, cheerful, and innocent that we don't laugh when she gets into unhappy scenes with men -- we wince.” It would be thirty-five years until I saw another big budget film that attempted to address the awkwardness of early experiences for young women. In Lady Bird, (2017), the protagonist’s disappointment with her first experience is augmented by her partner’s comment, “You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.” For Lady Bird, her second feature film, Greta Gerwig became one of only five women to be nominated for a best director Oscar. 

Heckerling’s successes and long career place her in an elite category of filmmakers. After Fast Times, she directed the gangster spoof Johnny Dangerously (1984) and National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985). After the birth of her daughter, she wrote and directed Look Who’s Talking (1989) which earned nearly $300 million, and Look Who’s Talking Too (1990,) which was also a hit. Most recently, she worked primarily in television, including The Carrie Diaries (2013-14) and Red Oaks (2015-17). Her most critically well-received film has been1995’s Clueless. For that film that echoes the plot and characters of Jane Austin’s novel Emma, she developed her own dictionary for each character, a combination of high school slang, mixed with Yiddish, jazz, and other vernacular. For example, Cher, the teenage protagonist, describes her arch-enemy Amber: “She's a full-on Monet,” and goes on to explain the meaning of this jab, "It's like a painting, see. From far away it's okay, but up close it's a big ol' mess." For Clueless,  like Fast Times, Heckerling provided breakout roles for actors including Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and Stacey Dash. In July 2020, Clueless celebrated its 25th anniversary with a new release of a Blu-Ray edition; and the style and story of the film was revisited in multiple publications from Vogue (July 19, 2020) to Entertainment Weekly (July 19, 2020). Now, in August 2020, after the first feature film,  60+ television episodes of the series inspired by the show, and a musical, there’s yet another take on this story.  It was announced that there will be an all  new look at Heckerling’s creation, that will focus on Cher’s best friend Dionne, played in the film and the first television series by Stacey Dash.

In a 2000 interview for the Detroit MetroTimes by Serena Donadoni (July 26, 2000), Heckerling described her interest in films about adolescents and early adulthood, “I’d rather see what young people are going through than see things explode.” She added “I think you come all sorts of ages, and hopefully keep coming of age. It would be sad if somebody figured it out at 17 and then just glided through the rest of their life.”

To find out more about Amy Heckerling: 

Amy Heckerling on IMDB

Production Notes for Fast Times At Ridgemont High: The Uncool.Com/The Official Website for Everything Cameron Crowe (

A 2017 Interview by Susan Wloszczyna, May 31, 2017, “Amy Heckerling on Fast Times Ridgemont High, Clueless, and more” (RogerEbert.Com)

Learn more about CORE and the Fast Times At Ridgemont High Table Read 

Nada Djordjevich, WIFSFBA, Women in Film

Nada Djordjevich

Member of the Board
Women In Film
San Francisco Bay Area