Lifestyle & Culture

A Look Back at Cult Classic ‘Clueless’

July 15, 2015

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© 2015 Joan Brady

Author Jen Chaney/ © 2015 Joan Brady

Remember “Clueless?” The movie came out 20 years ago this month and was an instant, if unexpected, hit, with a lovable cast that included Alicia Silverstone playing the lead character Cher and Paul Rudd playing her ex-stepbrother Josh. Marking the anniversary of the film,  hometown girl Jen Chaney has written “As If: The Oral History of Clueless,” which was published last week. My Little Bird talked to her about her new book, why she decided to write it and the long-lasting appeal of the 1995 movie.

MLB: How did you decide to write a Cheny2webbook about the making of this movie, and what do you think accounts for its continuing popularity?

JC: The book came about because I wrote this piece for Vulture at New York Magazine about the Valley party scene in the movie.  It was a fun story that lots of people shared. An agent got in touch with me about it and thought that I could take a similar approach for a  book about the movie. I wrote a proposal to see if there were enough to do that, and it turned out there was plenty.  It’s a movie that was formative for people who watched it when they were in their teens. A coming-of-age film that kicked off a wave of ’90s movies. The timing was deliberate — to come out with something on the movie’s 20th anniversary. It just made sense to publish at the moment when people were feeling very nostalgic. It came out on July 19, and then opened a few days later. Funny coincidence: Jane Austen’s “Emma,” the book on which it was based, was published in 1815.

MLB: Excuse me for being, ahem, clueless, but could you explain what an oral history is?

JC: Oral history is an oxymoronic term — it’s called oral but it’s written down. I talked to many people involved in the process of making the movie — the director, the actors, the crew (and Sherry Lansing, the former CEO of Paramount Pictures) — as well as people  (including Lena Dunham) who had thoughts about its influence. The quotes from those conversations are then written in a way that tells a story. Tom Shales’s  “Live From New York” (about Saturday Night Live) and “I Want My MTV” (about the music video revolution) are examples. The latter is what really inspired me to write this book.

MLB: I love the relationships among the girls in the film. With few exceptions, it’s sweet and supportive. Yet, does that reflect the norm? You hear so much about mean girls.

JC: There are times in the film when you see Cher in an adversarial approach to Amber. They “mean girl” each other.  I think that one of the things that people responded to in the movie is the very fact that it depicted girls having a positive relationship with one another, I think it’s an accurate portrayal of how some friendships work. I had good relationships like that in high school, with lots of support among my female friends. That should be celeberated as the norm.

MLB: I watched the movie again recently and what immediately struck me was everyone talking on cell phones (albeit very large ones with antennas) at the dinner table and Cher using her computer to organize her wardrobe for school.

JC: The percentage of people who had cell phones in 1995 was very low. At the time, the joke was that Cher was very privileged.  Today, if a teenager fires up “Clueless” on Netflix, the prevalence of cell phones and a fashion app make the movie seem current.  Director Amy Heckerling is good at putting her finger on the pulse of what ’s happening in culture or hasn’t arrived yet.

MLB: There’s a very funny scene in a parking lot when a mugger who is threatening Cher tells her to get down on her knees, and her response is, “You don’t understand. This is an Alaia.” You devote a section of your book about the movie’s continuing influence on fashion. Talk a little about that.

JC: The way costume designer Mona May mixed high and low is still current. Yes, there was the Alaia red dress and the Calvin Klein slip dress, but Mona also made some things and hunted for stuff in thrift shops. Coming out of the grunge era, girls responded to the clothes because they were feminine. Nobody, including Kal Ruttenstein, famed fashion director of Bloomingdale’s at the time, understood that it was going to be a big deal.  Every girl wanted to replicate what Cher was wearing. Department stores had to catch up. In the years that followed, designers, who grew up on the movie, showed its influences in their collections. In 2010 Rebecca Minkoff named a black leather pleated skirt after the film; Alexander Wang said it was his favorite movie. While I was writing the book and watching the movie a lot, every time I’d go shopping, I’d see something that looked like it was from “Clueless.”

MLB: An excerpt from your book ran in the July issue of Vanity Fair.  That was a real coup, particularly because the cover story features Bruce Jenner in her new incarnation as Caitlyn. A happy coincidence? Any effect on sales or too early to tell?

JC: One of the main editors at VF, who has since left, was a real advocate for this piece. I can’t really say if it has influenced sales, but there definitely was a ripple effect from the Jenner story.

MLB: I heard that Amy Heckerling is bringing “Clueless” to Broadway. What do you know about that?

JC: Amy has written a book for a musical adaptation. The producers are the same group that did “Urinetown” and “Jersey Boys.” She has tapped the guy who was the director of Rock of Ages, a ’90s-based juke box musical. No one has been officially cast and it’s still unclear  when it will come to the stage.

Catch a Clueless screening and a Q&A with Jen Chaney tonight  at 7 p.m. at the American Film Institute Silver Spring. If you miss it, she’ll also be at the Newseum on July 25 for another Q&A

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