I wish they all could be California Girls: Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in Clueless

Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), starring Alicia Silverstone, is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma. Cher, the Silverstone character, is a rich young woman who wants to fix other girls’ romantic lives, just like Emma Woodhouse. Unlike Emma, she does it by taking them to the mall, doing their hair and make-up and telling them how to behave at parties. (‘Let’s do a lap before we commit to a location.’) But both comic heroines are deadly serious about finding partners for their friends who will both love them and enhance their standing in their respective communities; a well-heeled, status-obsessed village and a well-heeled, status-obsessed American High School. Of course both Emma and Cher make a mess of things.

Clueless is as witty and light-on-its-feet as a classic screwball comedy. Like those products of old Hollywood, it features sparkling dialogue and glossy production values: this is a school where the girls dress in high-fashion microdresses and Cher, daughter of a fiercely combative corporate litigator, drives a new white jeep, despite being incapable of passing her test.

Allegedly, writer-director Amy Heckerling was on a treadmill at the gym when she saw 16-year-old Alicia dangling from a bridge in an Aerosmith video. She says she recognised the former model’s comic gifts, although Alicia didn’t actually speak: it didn’t hurt that she looked perfectly ease in her undies.

That’s casting. Alicia is triumphant as Cher, trading one-liners like Kate Hepburn in Calvin Klein, and negotiating screeds of voice-over with ease. The script introduced us all to a rich seam of teenage Californian slang, much of which is still with us, and Heckerling wisely ensured that even the minor characters had good lines. When she goes on a doomed date, her father (Dan Hedaya) confronts the beau, a suspiciously well-groomed young man, with a look of James Dean and a penchant for Tony Curtis.

“Hey you!” growls Dad. “Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you.”

Aspiring screenwriters, read the script. It’s an object-lesson in how to be funny and clever while hewing close to the timeless patterns of narrative: a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, and then a resolution. Heckerling even ends with a wedding, though not one we were expecting.

With the film earning a lot of money and rave reviews, and Alicia achieving extraordinary levels of adolescent male attention, she was awarded a $10m deal by Columbia TriStar, including a clause that made her briefly the youngest producer in the history of Hollywood. Unfortunately, her next big role was as Batgirl in Batman & Robin (1997), opposite George Clooney, sometimes described as The Worst Film Ever. Poor Alicia won the Razzle Award for Worst Supporting Actress, although much of the hostile comment revolved around whether she looked fat. Unfair: she looked like a normal woman in a ludicrous leather fetish outfit, rather than a Hollywood stick-insect.

More ludicrous pictures are available

Thereafter, she was the subject of gratuitously nasty reviews and her films flopped. The rest of the Clueless crew did little better. Amy Heckerling, a highly literate woman and the first female director to create a string of box-office hits, has now turned against the business: ‘It’s a disgusting industry. I don’t know what to say. I can’t stomach most of the movies about women.’ Stacey Dash, the 28-year-old actress who played Dionne Davenport, Cher’s 16-year-old best friend (‘Dionne and I are both named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials,’ says Cher), failed to get good parts, took a lot of drugs and is now a Trump supporter who loves guns and wants to free her fellow black people from ‘a plantation mentality’. Brittany Murphy, who played Tai, the uncool New Jersey arrival whom Cher rescues, burned brightly until dying of pneumonia at 32, having been found comatose in her mouldy Hollywood bathroom. The inquest found evidence of four different prescription medications, including an opioid and an amphetamine. (Six months later her widower was found dead in not dissimilar circumstances: his family blamed the mould. Her father claimed he’d poisoned her.) Of the lead quartet, only Paul Rudd, who plays her sensible law student stepbrother, has had a strong, steady career. He married the film’s publicist in 2003 and has stayed married ever since. 

Never mind all that. Clueless is hilarious, sunny, charming, insightful and a delightful reminder of the days when films were made by lively young artists, rather than spreadsheets, algorithms, corporate executives and venal agents. It’s an innocent film: when It’s also only 90 minutes long, which makes it ideal for old-fashioned family viewing: plenty of time left over for watching the obligatory Netflix box-set of the moment. If you don’t find Clueless funny, check your pulse. 

If you want to read more about Alicia, I’ve dug out the interview I did with her for the Telegraph Magazine at the time of the film’s release. She was very good value. I was delighted to see her quite recently in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), almost unrecognisable as the mother of Martin, the disturbed teenager who terrorises Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell. 

All grown up: Alicia in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Clueless is on Saturday (14/8) at 19:05 on Great Movies, but you can stream it, rent it or buy it almost anywhere for peanuts. To find out where, try JustWatch

World Cinema

On Saturday (14/8) at 21:00, BBC4 has Piranhas (2019). Not killer fish, but a teenage Neapolitan gang, armed with assault rifles. Co-written by the author of Matteo Garrone’s adult mafia masterpiece Gomorra (2009). 

On Sunday (15/8) at 01:00, BBC2 has Happy End (2017). Michael Haneke drama contrasting the domestic traumas of a middle-class Calais family with the refugee squalor nearby. With Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Perennially topical, but not much liked. 

On Monday (16/8) at 00:05,  BBC2 has wacky Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope. Refugees again, this time befriended by a restaurateur and a salesman in Finland (2017). Enjoyed by CFS members in 2018/19. At 01:30, Film4 has Shoplifters (2018), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s deliciously ambiguous drama about a family of petty criminals who adopt a lost child. Shown by CFS in 2019/20. 

On Thursday (19/8) at 01:00, Film4 has Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (2018). Elegant, moving drama about a tortured love affair between a pair of Polish musicians facing exile in France. Shown by CFS in 2018/19. 

On Friday (20/8) at 01:25, Great Movies has Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Ang Lee’s all-conquering martial-arts aerial-ballet epic. 

Stephen Ilott’s picks

On Saturday (14/8) at 09:00, Talking Pictures has another Laurel & Hardy: Tit For Tat.(1935). The pair play shopkeepers at war with another local trader. At 13:15, BBC2 has    Viva Las Vegas (1964). ‘Elvis is at the wheel but Ann-Margret drives him wild!’ (Also on BBC4 on Thursday at 22:30.)

On Sunday (15/8) at 13:35, ITV has From Russia with Love (1963). Sean Connery, with Daniela Bianchi as his Russian love interest, and the legendary singer Lotte Lenya, once married to Kurt Weill, as KGB monster Rosa Krebb. 

On Monday (16/8) at 16:40, Great Movies has A Man For All Seasons (1966), the star-packed Tudor drama, with Paul Scofield as Thomas More, who stood up to Henry VIII and paid the price. 

On Wednesday (18/8)at 21:00, Film4 has The Old Man & the Gun (2018). Robert Redford has a lot of fun as a 70-year-old bank robber, running from detective Casey Affleck after escaping from San Quentin. Based on a New Yorker article. 

Other films of interest

On Saturday (14/8) at 21:00, Sky Arts has Suggs: My Life Story (2018). Biography of the Madness frontman, inventively directed by Julien Temple. (Also Wednesday 00:30.) At 22:00, BBC2 has Green Book (2018). A black classical pianist (Mahershala Ali) hires an Italian-American bouncer (Viggo Mortensen) to drive him around the Deep South at the height of segregation. Ali won an Oscar. At 23:50, BBC1 has Giant Little Ones (2018). Intense Canadian drama about teenage boys coming of age in the modern world of sexual fluidity. Kyle MacLachlan is one of their Dads, who has just discovered he is gay. At 22:45, BBC4 has Cartel Land (2015). An impressive, raw documentary about vigilantes fighting back against drug gangs on the Mexican-US border.  

On Monday (16/8) at 21:30,  BBC4 has Against the Law (2017), a BBC part-dramatised documentary about the life and struggles of Peter Wildeblood (played by Daniel Mays), the only gay man to give evidence to the Wolfenden Committee, which recommended legalising homosexuality in 1967. 

On Tuesday (17/8) at 22:30, BBC4 has Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015). Documentary about the Hollywood action-man’s folie de grandeur: a feature film about his passion, driving fast cars. Le Mans (1971) cost $6m to make, but the budget didn’t seem to run to a worthwhile script.

On Friday (20/8)at 21:00, Great Movies has Gone Baby Gone (2007). The debut feature of Ben Affleck, about detectives hunting the kidnapper of a small girl in tough working-class Boston. With brother Casey and Michelle Monaghan as the detectives, plus Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. At 22:35, BBC1 has Destroyer (2018), with Nicole Kidman breaking new ground as a female detective confronting a dangerous man she encountered when infiltrating a gang many years earlier. 

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