From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
By 1995, director Amy Heckerling could boast a trio of hits under her belt (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, National Lampoon’s European Vacation and Look Who’s Talking), but she hadn’t had a film in theaters since 1990’s Look Who’s Talking Too. And although 18-year-old actress Alicia Silverstone had something of a following, she hadn’t yet toplined a hit film. So when Clueless opened on July 19, ’95, it was a modestly budgeted David facing box-office Goliaths like Batman Forever, Apollo 13 and Die Hard: With a Vengeance. But it became a surprise success, adored at the time and still beloved and fondly remembered today, when a good deal of its higher-cost competition has passed out of memory.
Returning to the LA-high-school milieu of Fast Times for a modern update of Jane Austen’s Emma, Heckerling, who also scripted, adopted a sunnier, sweeter yet still satirical tone, poking gentle fun at the materialistic lives of its Beverly Hills teenagers. Silverstone’s Cherilyn “Cher” Horowitz, the reigning queen of Bronson Alcott High, may be spoiled, but she discovers an inner altruistic side and decides to play matchmaker for her friends and teachers, and to make over a “tragically unhip” classmate played by Brittany Murphy. It was a plum role for a young performer, and it made Silverstone a star, elevating her out of the realm of B-movies and small-screen projects.
“The first time I saw Alicia was when she was in the Aerosmith video ‘Cryin’,’ ” Heckerling recalled to this writer while promoting 2012’s Vamps, which reunited her with the actress. That popular clip, which Silverstone scored after director Marty Callner saw her in the 1993 jailbait thriller The Crush, has her dealing with a cheating boyfriend (Stephen Dorff) and a purse-snatcher (a pre-Lost Josh Holloway). “My heart went out to her, you know? I just felt, ‘Awww, this poor girl.’ [Laughs] I mean, the videos were filled with these model-type girls with blonde hair, and there she was, and I was just like, ‘I feel so bad for her!’ That was an amazing thing for an actress who was so young and beautiful—to make you care so much about her, and not be like, ‘Oh, she’s hot,’ or ‘She looks good in that,’ or whatever.”
That made Silverstone perfect for Cher, a role that required her to be gorgeous and fashionable while also engaging the audience’s sympathy. “We had so much fun working on Clueless, because it was really like being at camp,” Heckerling recalls. She then notes that her young leading lady, like Cher, had her mind on helping others. “When we started in pre-production and all the actors would come in, they were in their own worlds, but Alicia always had this list of things she was doing for other people during the time she was rehearsing. She’d be crossing off stuff she’d done for her family and all these people, and I’d think, ‘Why does this baby have so many people to take care of?’ I felt like, ‘Oh my God, is anybody taking care of her?’
“Anyhow, when I watch Clueless now, I just go, ‘Wow. She was fucking great!’ I was very happy with what was going on when we were doing it, and it was such a happy thing, because I always felt like that movie was this big, very thin bubble that we all had to keep up in the air. And she really has that lightness, and energy—she doesn’t just enter a room, she bounds into it!”
What elevates Cher above the pretty, perky faces of many SoCal teen flicks is the character’s thoughtful side, which was key to both Heckerling’s writing and her direction of Silverstone. “So much of it was voiceover of what’s in Cher’s head. I’d be saying stuff while we were shooting that wasn’t necessarily in the script. Like, I would say, ‘Oh no, he doesn’t like me? What did I do wrong?’ and a bunch of other stuff that had nothing to do with what was on the page. And Alicia would immediately be, [snapping fingers] reacting, reacting, reacting, there in the moment, constantly hitting the right responses to thoughts she didn’t know were going to be coming.”
The actress appreciated Heckerling both as a creative collaborator and as a person, forging a bond that continued years later into the making of Vamps. “I was so young when we did Clueless that I didn’t know who I was, you know what I mean?” Silverstone says. “But I loved working with her so much. What Amy does so brilliantly is, she speaks to the young pop-culture generation and more intellectual, artistic people at the same time. Just like with Clueless, which parents enjoy just as much as their kids do. That’s a very rare quality, and she seems to master that.
“It’s amazing to watch her work,” the actress continues. “She’s got it all going on. And in terms of how we were on set, there was always this real warmth between us—an unspoken thing that felt like family, but better than family [laughs]—or different from family. Maybe it’s because we shared something so special in that time. Neither of us could have known what was going to happen with Clueless, though we kind of experienced that independently. We didn’t get to enjoy it together, really—we had our own lives. So to come together again for Vamps was really nice. I have so much respect for her.”