Almost 40 years ago (on Aug. 13, 1982), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” kicked off one of the most enduring genres in movie history: The 1980s teen film. With its ensemble cast of future stars — from Sean Penn to Jennifer Jason Leigh to a briefly-seen Nicolas Cage — and a soundtrack of choice New Wave nuggets, the movie set a template for dozens more to come. The subsequent rise of writer-director John Hughes and his Brat Pack acting troupe might have happened even without it, but “Fast Times,” written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Amy Heckerling, helped open the door.
The film’s big anniversary got us thinking: Everyone has a favorite ‘80s teen movie character — who’s yours? We asked a few Long Islanders for theirs, added a few of our own and compiled a shortlist. Here’s what we came up with — and the choices may surprise you.
Penn was a virtual unknown when he played this surfer-stoner in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” A Santa Monica native who knew a real-life Spicoli or two, Penn immersed himself in the role, reportedly breaking character only on the last day of filming, and ended up creating an archetype. (Who are Bill, Ted, Wayne and even The Dude if not versions of Spicoli?) Penn’s spaced-out character not only became the film’s most quotable figure — “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I’m fine” — he took over the marketing campaign: That’s Spicoli on the poster, and those are his checkered Vans on the cover of the soundtrack. “I would love to be like him,” said Christian Minara, a retired firefighter and stay-at-home dad in Rockville Centre. “He’s an escape character, that’s what he is. Like, if only life was that simple! ‘Ah, who cares?’”
Alright, so this character played by Rob Lowe in “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) isn’t just quite a teenager — he’s a recent Georgetown University graduate trying to avoid adulthood and keep partying with his friends. Nevertheless, this movie helped establish the Brat Pack with starring roles for Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson, all three of whom appeared that same year in “The Breakfast Club.” Charming and slightly sleazy, Hicks is a favorite of Long Islander Ben Freiser, whose Beginnings Bar & Restaurant in Atlantic Beach offers movie-themed food and cocktails. “He had the long hair, he played the sax and he was just awesome,” said Freiser, 44. “’St. Elmo’s Fire’ is still a movie I will watch any day of the week.”
Everyone knew a girl like Stacy, the perky food court cashier portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” She was cute, she was sweet and even her bad-girl friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) couldn’t fully corrupt her. Alas, Stacy fell for the school scoundrel, Damone (Robert Romanus), and wound up alone at an abortion clinic — a rare moment of hard reality for a teen movie. Stacy’s story of lost innocence is the essence of adolescence, and it’s what makes “Fast Times” so much more than a comedy. Plus, her theme song is Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby,” one of the most aching power-pop ballads ever put to wax.
A young River Phoenix played this cool but troubled kid in Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me” (1986), based on a Steven King novella about four friends searching for a dead body in the woods. Phoenix’s performance was a standout and launched him on a too-brief career that ended with his drug overdose at the age of 23 in 1993. “There was just something about him that jumped off the screen,” said David Nugent, the artistic director of the Hamptons International Film Festival. Nugent, 48, saw the movie in his early teens and repeatedly dragged friends to see it — a foreshadowing of his film-fest career. “I was like, ‘Hey everybody, do you know this movie? It’s so great!’ Which is what my job is now.”
This colorful character is the very heart of “Pretty in Pink,” Hughes’ 1986 movie about a high school love triangle complicated by class and social status. Molly Ringwald is working-class Andie Walsh; Andrew McCarthy is Blane, the posh boy she falls for; and Jon Cryer is indelible as the kooky-creative Duckie, who pines for her in secret. Poor Duckie — an early test screening, in which he and Andie dance together at prom, famously met with boos from an audience that demanded a storybook ending. “I had a soft spot in my heart for him,” said Thérèse Purcell Nielsen, a former librarian and now a freelance book reviewer in Huntington. “And honestly, pull back the lens a little. Do you really want to think she’s still with Blane?”
Judd Nelson’s role in “The Breakfast Club” is every '80s rebel in one: flannel shirt, jean jacket and a trench coat. Ah, but the layers are metaphorical, and Bender peels them off to reveal a scared little boy beneath. Bender gets all the best lines — “Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?” — and Nelson delivers them with a Dean-meets-Brando sneer. Deliciously, the school beauty queen falls for him, even if only to tick off her parents (“Wouldn’t I be outstanding in that capacity?” he muses). And it’s Bender who gets the film’s final freeze-frame image: A loner stomping across the football field, a screw-you fist thrust high in the air.
John Cusack’s aimless high-school graduate in “Say Anything” (1989) arrived late in the decade but became one of its most beloved movie figures. He’s an average guy who falls for an above-average girl (Ione Skye as class valedictorian Diane Court) but doesn’t have much to offer beyond his offbeat personality and undying love. Writer-director Cameron Crowe fashioned “Say Anything” as a modern Romeo-and-Juliet story: The addition of a boombox to the balcony scene — Cusack holds it high, blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” — helped create one of the most iconic moments in the teen genre. “Lloyd is honest and he has flaws and he’s quirky,” said Michael Scully, 45, a Levittown native and filmmaker. “As I got into my early teens and my 20s, I just really related to him. From about ’90 to ’95, that character was me.”
There’s no way this list would leave out a Molly Ringwald character, and Claire, from “The Breakfast Club,” is surely her best. Director Hughes tended to cast his muse as a misfit — a slight stretch, given her beauty and poise — but here she’s fully believable as a wealthy debutante stuck in Saturday detention with a group of her not-quite-peers. As the day drags by and the kids get to know each other, Claire is by turns haughty, vulnerable (remember the lipstick scene?) and brutally honest. In the end, though, she’s just another girl at school, with the same problems and pressures as anyone. She’s one of the main reasons “The Breakfast Club” remains the pinnacle of its genre.
TOTALLY RAD '80s MOVIE QUIZ
Think you know your 1980s teen movies? Test your knowledge with this pop quiz… Anyone? Anyone?
1. Ray Walston, who played history teacher Mr. Hand in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” starred in what famous 1960s sitcom?
A. “Get Smart”
B. “My Favorite Martian”
C. “The Beverly Hillbillies”
2. Andrew McCarthy, Kevin Dillon and Patrick Dempsey played Brooklyn teens in which 1985 movie?
A. “Heaven Help Us”
B. “The Lords of Flatbush”
3. “Pretty in Pink” took its title from a song by which band?
A. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
B. Wang Chung
C. The Psychedelic Furs
4. Name Cameron Crowe’s 1984 semi-sequel to “Fast Times,” starring Chris Penn:
C. “The Wild Life”
5. Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker all appeared in which movie?
A. “Weird Science”
B. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”
6. Name the fictional setting for many a John Hughes film:
A. Shermer, Illinois
B. Stanton, New Jersey
C. Midfield, Minnesota
7. The famous parade in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” celebrates what obscure holiday?
A. Pulaski Day
B. Van Wilder Day
C. Von Steuben Day
8. Name Winona Ryder’s feature-film debut:
B. “Just One of the Guys”
C. “Valley Girl”
9. Mary Stuart Masterson plays a rock drummer in “Some Kind of Wonderful.” What’s her name?
10. Emilio Estevez played a kid named Otto Maddox in what punk-rock classic?
A. “Breaking Glass”
B. “Times Square”
C. “Repo Man”
ANSWERS 1-B 2-A 3-C 4-C 5-B 6-A 7-C 8-A 9-B 10-C