Notes on the 20th Anniversary of Clueless


This month Clueless turned twenty. Amy Heckerling’s film, starring a cast led by Alicia Silverstone, was released in American cinemas from 19 July 1995. It would not appear on movie screens in Europe until the autumn: crossing the Atlantic to arrive in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 20 October, it spent the next six months working its way across the continent and beyond. But despite its ensemble of largely unknown young actors, and a modest forty-day shooting schedule and budget of $12 million, Clueless proved a surprise summer hit.

On its opening weekend from 21-23 July, playing in 1,653 theatres, it made a total of $10,612,443: ranking second, behind only Apollo 13. It eventually grossed $56,631,572; but the numbers, along with the positive early critical reception which Clueless received, pale in comparison to the film’s enduring influence and appeal.

Released with the world on the cusp of the takeover of mobile phones and the internet, the film’s poster features its three prominent females – Cher, played by Silverstone; Dionne, played by Stacey Dash; and Tai, played by Brittany Murphy – posing with mobiles to their ears, hardly sleek, but far from the bricks of the early 1990s, with Cher’s showcasing a flip cover. In this context the material and technological aspects of the film bear enough similarities with our lives today to remain clearly translatable and relevant, while avoiding the sort of online fixation which a more recent movie like Easy A navigated well, but could have detracted from the tangible and still plausible spontaneity of Clueless.

Some of the slang uttered by Cher and her contemporaries has faded: despite Alec’s popularity on the back of his performances in 30 Rock, teenage girls today are unlikely to refer to an attractive young man as ‘a Baldwin’; ‘Audi’ is out not only in meaning; and ‘buggin” and ‘wiggin” are no longer commonplace. ‘Boinkfest’, ‘as if’, and certainly ‘keeping it real’ remain sensible, if less often expressed. At least ‘whatever’ remains relatively constant, though perhaps used more deliberately, and sans the associated hand gesture. The fashion of Clueless continues to set a precedent, from plaid skirts and knee-high socks to low-hanging trousers.

Beyond the pop-cultural associations, the essential enchantment of Clueless was quickly embraced by Silverstone. In Jen Chaney’s As If!: The Oral History of Clueless, published by Touchstone earlier this year, and excerpted by Vanity Fair, Silverstone remarks:

‘I remember when I read the script the first time, thinking, Oh, she’s so materialistic – that I was judging [Cher] instead of being delighted by her. I remember thinking, This is so funny and I’m not funny. But once I was playing her – I just had so much fun being her.’

Silverstone had starred in three music videos for Aerosmith and as the leading female in the psychological thriller The Crush – released in 1993 and starring Cary Elwes – when she won the part of Cher Horowitz. Her co-star Paul Rudd, who after a protracted casting process earned the part of Cher’s stepbrother Josh Lucas, was less well-known and little more experienced. After a couple of television roles, he made his first foray into film with the sixth installment of the Halloween franchise – although that movie wouldn’t come out until after Clueless, in September 1995.

While Rudd has gone on to become a cornerstone of Hollywood – playing Phoebe’s partner in the later seasons of Friends, progressing to comedic roles in films including Anchorman, Knocked Up, and This is 40, and currently headlining theatres as the titular character of Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man – Silverstone is still intimately identified with what remains her biggest hit. She continues as an actor on the big and small screens and on the stage, but her lack of star turns since Clueless has only helped to crystallise her performance as Cher. Clueless endures both as something of a coming-out party, and as an encapsulation of a moment in a young woman’s life.

Like Raging Bull with regard to the genres of sports and biographical film, Clueless balances – more poised, but just as adroitly – on the lofty summit of a realm which it reshapes and surpasses. Without entirely glossing some of the prospective troubles and pitfalls, it depicts the effortless fun, the quick and facile wit, and the burgeoning potential of high schoolers moving towards their late teens. Lighter than the five peanut butter M&M’s which make Cher feel like ‘a heifer’, the film possesses that lightness, that deftness of touch, which characterises some of the greatest works of art: the novels of Jane Austen, from whose Emma the plot of Clueless was loosely drawn; the poetry of Pushkin; and especially the drawing room and screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s, like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story.

One of the ways in which Clueless plays with the high school movie formula is by satirising it, and eschewing its conventions. As in Austen’s Emma, Clueless‘s heroine assumes the role of matchmaker and makeover artist for those lacking her presumed worldly grace; while she foregoes both the high-school stud and the exotic newcomer, falling in love instead with her intellectual but somewhat nerdy, stay-at-home stepbrother. Yet films before and after Clueless have satirised the form of the high school movie, and in fact from Heathers to Election and on, it is hard to find a straight telling that doesn’t attempt to undercut the idea that this is the time of our lives, or parody the focus on appearances or high school’s strict social stratification.

What distinguishes Clueless is that its high school drama is not a front for a satirical point of view. Instead it works in the opposite direction, its lithe satire providing a diaphanous cover for what amounts to genuine depth of feeling. Through Heckerling’s writing, the characters of Clueless are never judged, and rather than mocked or encoded to score certain points, they are shown as sharply intelligent and self-aware. This is most overt in Murray’s discourse on feminine pronouns and street slang as ‘an increasingly valid form of expression’; but it is a quality Cher and the others share throughout.

This isn’t to say that the characters themselves – much less the actors playing their parts – are ‘knowing’, in the sense of acutely aware of the satirical value in their words and actions. None of them ply a trade in irony: they are too confident and carefree for that. It is simply that, as brightly conscious individuals, they readily embrace the connectedness of life, and some of its gentle absurdity. More, they are intuitively attentive towards the needs and emotions of others.

Cher is undoubtedly self-absorbed to a degree: called selfish by Josh early in the film, he makes a selfless act impossible for her when he challenges, ‘If I ever saw you do anything that wasn’t ninety percent selfish, I’d die of shock’. Cher responds, ‘Oh, that’d be reason enough for me’. But she is also changeable, strong-willed but flexible, and soon seeks, full of optimism, to provide a helping hand. The same social impulse that drives her to renegotiate her faltering grades spurs her friendship with Tai, her endeavour to bring together Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist, and her fledgling relationship with Josh.

Rather than following a standard Hollywood narrative – in which a hero or heroine must face and overcome some central obstacle or crisis – Clueless progresses through minor dilemmas, soon resolved. At various points we may wonder whether the film is going to become the turmoil of Cher’s grades, of Elton’s misdoing, or of the strain between Cher and Tai. But these issues are dealt with agreeably and we move on, and the romance between Cher and Josh emerges organically, towards the end of the film.

In addition to the ingenuity and to the complementary characteristics of the cast, and to Heckerling’s stellar writing and direction, Bill Pope’s cinematography deserves credit. Clueless is a joy to look at: with its bold colours; compositional savvy in group shots, which sometimes feature quick cuts or pay homage to old cinema and works of art; and maximal use of sunlight. The film looks forever fresh and vibrant.

At one point Cher takes pause, impressed by the diversity of her friends’ qualities and interests. And through Josh and his connection to college life, the impact of her school teachers, Christian’s passion for art, Dionne’s expertise in matters of fashion and fragrance, Murray’s playful streetwise sensibility, and Travis’ engagements with skateboarding and soft drugs, Clueless boasts a wide range of references. These extend beyond the contemporary world which the film so compellingly depicts, to cover everything from Haitian immigration to the Bosnian War; Hamlet and Nietzsche; Billie Holiday, The Wizard of Oz, Spartacus, and the Rat Pack.

Clueless is also a repository for songs. The film’s soundtrack was certified gold within a year of its release, and eventually sold enough to go platinum. In April this year, it was re-released by Universal on special anniversary-edition yellow-and-black-plaid-printed vinyl. Songs lift and cheer scenes throughout the film; and the selection of music has proven especially pertinent, because it succeeds in affirming without being restricted by the era. Surely few people listen today to Lightning Seeds or even early-90s Radiohead – but they still made some nice songs, which suggest the time without colouring it or demanding recollection.

‘Tenderness’ by General Public stands as one of the best-chosen closing tracks for any film. But if Clueless has one signature song, it is perhaps ‘Supermodel’ by Jill Sobule. It opens, ‘I don’t care what my teachers say / I’m gonna be a supermodel’, and Sobule and others have often cast the song as a satirical gesture. In this case it achieves the opposite of its purpose: revelling instead, like Clueless, in youthful certainty, bold self-expression, and surging light-hearted optimism.