Deborah Yaffe

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The Austen Catch-Up Project: As If!

By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 29 2016 02:00PM

I love Clueless. Doesn’t everyone? Last summer marked the twentieth anniversary of the film’s release, and the milestone inspired a slew of fond reminiscences (for instance, here and here). Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie, which updates Emma to high school in Beverly Hills, is clever, funny and touching. What’s not to like?


So when I drew up the agenda for the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 bridging a few of the gaps in my Janeite knowledge, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew was a natural addition to the list.


As If! is the brainchild of pop culture journalist Jen Chaney (or, as the back cover has it, “acclaimed pop culture journalist Jen Chaney.”) Loving Clueless as I do, I would like to report that the book matches its subject in wit and heart. Alas -- no. I hate to be way harsh, but the book is, if not quite a full-on Monet, then at the very least a big disappointment.

Chaney’s conception of oral history is simple, not to say simple-minded: After short introductions to each section of the book (“The Fashion and Beauty of Clueless,” “The Story Behind the Clueless Soundtrack”), she strings together undigested chunks of commentary lifted verbatim from her interviews – including a few with Austen scholars who testify to the film’s success as an Emma adaptation.


This all-in-their-own-words approach makes sustained analysis pretty much impossible, leaving the reader frustrated and a bit, dare I say, clueless. Writer-director Heckerling tells Chaney she wanted her movie to look and feel “happy,” and that the 1975 film Shampoo exemplifies that vision: “And the Sylberts, you know, the decorators and costume people [on Shampoo], they’re geniuses,” Heckerling says. “And it had that feeling of classical old stuff that’s new and California.”


Well, no, actually – I don’t know. Could you perhaps explain more precisely what you mean by “that feeling of classical old stuff”? Could your interviewer perhaps press you to give some examples, and then paraphrase or summarize your responses? No, she couldn’t – she’s playing oral historian, defined here as stenographer.


Even given these constraints, Chaney’s approach might have worked reasonably well if her interviewees had all spoken with the precision and wit of Elizabeth Bennet. Mostly, however, they didn’t.


So page after page is given over to useless filler or wordy rambling, of the kind that journalists typically carve away in pursuit of that nugget known as the Good Quote. To be fair, those good quotes can be found here: watch Clueless again after reading As If! and you can entertain your family with well-timed bursts of trivia. Wallace Shawn, playing the teacher of heroine Cher, improvised her last name (Horowitz)! Cher’s mispronunciation of “Haitians” was a genuine mistake by star Alicia Silverstone, and Heckerling liked it so much she kept it in the movie! The driving examiner is played by Jerry Orbach’s cousin!


But too much of this mildly entertaining wheat is encased in a silo’s worth of chaff. Stacey Dash, who plays Cher’s best friend, Dionne, introduces a cute anecdote about how she learned she’d gotten the part by announcing, “I’ll never forget it.” (Just tell us, already!) Elisa Donovan, who plays the snooty Amber, recalls the ridicule the cast experienced when they filmed scenes in a real high school and kids glimpsed their outrageous costumes: “You know, they were making fun of us. I was like, Oh my God, this is just hilarious.” (Hmm. Guess you had to be there.) Sherry Lansing, then-CEO of Paramount Pictures, remembers how smoothly the project rolled out: “We didn’t argue about anything. We just went ahead and made it. Mean Girls was the same way. . . there was no drama associated with either of those pictures. I kind of think of them together, even though they’re completely different.” (So why bring up Mean Girls now?)


Lansing’s comments highlight another problem with the book, one that Chaney can’t be blamed for, but that inevitably saps the story of its energy: By all accounts, the making of Clueless was a delightful, nearly problem-free experience for everyone. Oh, rain sometimes fell when sun was called for, and Silverstone got sick on a few of the days she was needed on set, and one tiny role had to be recast when the original choice turned diva. But far more common is this kind of thing: “You’re probably having a tough time finding anybody that says anything unkind about that guy,” one person involved in the movie says about another. “And if you do, give me their names because I’ll have it out with ‘em.”


All this collegiality is a testament to the talent, maturity and professionalism of the participants. If the whole world were like this, it would certainly be a better place. But in the fallen world we actually inhabit, conflict makes for much better stories. The perpetual lovefest on set probably helped turn Clueless into an excellent movie, but it turns As If! into a rather dull book.


Which is a shame, because between the lines, Chaney has an interesting, if less sunshine-filled, story to tell.


Clueless was a teen comedy about a girl's coming-of-age, created by a female writer-director who had already made a well-regarded teen comedy (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and a financially successful movie franchise (the Look Who’s Talking films). It was championed by a female executive at Fox, whose bosses overruled her and dropped the project. Paramount picked it up only when a powerful male producer, Scott Rudin, came aboard, displacing the female producer (Twink Caplan, who also plays the teacher Ms. Geist) who had been working on the project from the start.


The shoot ran smoothly, coming in on budget and only a few days behind schedule, and the movie was a sleeper hit, kick-starting the careers of a few of its leads, notably Paul Rudd, who plays the Mr. Knightley stand-in, Josh; Donald Faison, who plays Dionne’s boyfriend, Murray; and Jeremy Sisto, who plays the arrogant Elton. But the two women most integral to the film’s success – writer-director Heckerling and star Silverstone – saw their brief windows of enhanced career opportunity quickly slam shut, and neither has done anything to rival Clueless in the two decades since.


It’s not that Chaney is unaware of the feminist subtext: She alludes to “Hollywood sexism”; quotes Caplan recalling that a Fox executive wanted to beef up the boys’ roles; and points out, in a footnote, that the film’s (female) casting director earned about as much base pay ($10,000) for her weeks of work as the journeyman actor playing the guy who mugs Cher earned for his thirty-six seconds of screentime. As befits an acclaimed pop culture journalist, Chaney gets it. But the oral history straitjacket she's voluntarily strapped on prevents her from offering the context and analysis necessary to tell her real story: the story of how a hit film about a teenage girl, made with the utmost professionalism by a female writer-director, barely dented the chauvinist culture of Hollywood.


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