When Fast Times at Ridgemont High was first conceived, no one on the film could have imagined the movie would take on the life it has since its 1982 release. The movie, which started the career of a young Sean Penn, continues to move the needle as it is the #5 most-watched movie on the free IMDB TV service.
The plot was simple. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll in high school of the early ‘80s. The story followed the lives of sophomores Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark (Brian Backer) as well as their older friends, Linda (Phoebe Cates) and Mike (Robert Romanus) who feel they know their way around the ways of romance much better than their younger counterparts. Sean Penn plays Jeff Spicoli with the verve of a stoned surfer which, by the way, he was, and Judge Reinhold is on board as Brad, Stacy’s older brother.
High school life for Stacy is about to get rough. She is 15-year-old, a virgin, with intentions of losing it. When she meets a 26-year-old stereo salesman, she tells him she is 19, so he wouldn’t be scared off. The two do eventually hook up, in a dugout at a baseball field no less.
Mark is a shy kid who has fallen in love with Stacy. When Mike convinces him to ask Stacy out, he does but his shyness takes over after he and Stacy start making out. He abruptly leaves, causing Stacy to think he just didn’t have any interest in her. Stacy talks to Mike about it and then begins to develop an interest in him. This interest leads to the two of them having sex in Stacy’s pool house, a coupling that will have consequences down the road.
Sean Penn’s Spicoli is at war with Mr. Hand (Ray Winston), his strict history teacher. Mr. Hand is all about classroom rules, which Spicoli has no use for. The battle lasts throughout the movie, culminating in a meeting between the two on the night of the graduation dance. What they end up realizing is that there can be some mutual respect even though they come from two separate worlds.
Meanwhile, Stacy finds out that she is pregnant. She informs Mike then tells him of her intentions of getting an abortion. She asks for his help paying for it and a ride to the clinic, to which he agrees. But he is unable to come up with his half of the money, so he ends up bailing on her. Stacy then gets her brother Brad to drop her off at the bowling alley under the guise of meeting friends to go bowling. After he drops her off, he watches as she goes across the street to the clinic. Brad waits around to confront Stacy. When he does, she makes Brad promise not to say anything to their parents.
Of course, you can’t talk about Fast Times and not talk about that scene. The one that made Phoebe Cates famous and caused many a teenage boy to go through early puberty. It is one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, Phoebe Cates stepping out of the swimming pool in her red bathing suit. The scene was part of a daydream Brad was having while he was, well, “running the flag up the flag pole.” While Sean Penn’s comedic, stoner performance as Spicoli is always a highlight, Cates and her red bikini always rise to the top.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is based on the book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, both movie and book written by Cameron Crowe. For Crowe to get insight as to high school life in the early ‘80s, he went undercover for a year as a high school student at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California. Crowe knew he had something with the book but wanted his story to reach more people, so he came up with the idea for the movie. Fast Times was the first directing gig for Amy Heckerling who would also go on to direct such films as Johnny Dangerously, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Look Who’s Talking and its sequel, and Clueless. In another set of firsts, Fast Times was the debut film for Nicolas Cage (who then went by Nicolas Coppola) and Eric Stoltz. It also marked early roles for actors Anthony Edwards of ER fame and Forest Whitaker.
Amy Heckerling was able to get the movie made for nearly $5 million and brought in over $50 million. Sean Penn was just one who never thought the movie would become so popular stating, “None of us had any idea it would take on a life of its own.”
The role of Spicoli was only the beginning for the vastly talented, but mercurial Sean Penn. His personal life was constantly on display with relationships and marriages to Madonna and Robin Wright and all the constant breakups, makeups, divorces, and abuse claims. His professional life was just as hectic as Penn was notorious for lashing out at photographers.
Professionally speaking, Sean Penn is a highly regarded actor. He has been nominated numerous times for an Academy Award, winning twice for the 2003 drama Mystic River and then following that up with a 2008 Best Actor nod for Milk. Penn’s talents aren’t only shown in front of the camera. He has been behind the camera directing quite a few movies of note that include The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, and Into the Wild.
If you’re looking for a classic Sean Penn comedy before all the BS took over his life, head over to IMDB TV and catch Fast Times at Ridgemont High for free.