Wednesday, December 26, 2007
I knew a girl in high school named Allyson. We became friends in my senior year, and we would pass notes back in forth in a mind numbingly boring fifth period history class. Allyson played a relatively small role in my life but even now, well over fifteen years since I last saw her, there isn’t a month that goes by where I don’t stop for an instant and think about her and remember those funny little words that passed between us or the way she brightened up that fifth period class on a daily basis.
The film career of Phoebe Cates is a bit like that friendship I had back in high school. It is a relatively minor one, with a small number of films and only a couple of bona fide classics. She never won any awards and has all but completely retired now but something special still remains and, like Allyson, a small secret smile comes across my face when I think of her.
I don’t know a lot about her. I know she is from New York and she is just shy of a decade older than I am. Typically I crave to know the minute details of my favorite film figures but some I just prefer to keep on the screen. Phoebe has always been in that latter category, although of course her reputation as one of Hollywood’s best moms should be mentioned.
After some early commercial and modeling work she made her big screen debut before her twentieth birthday in 1982’s PARADISE. This rather weak little film is made memorable by the breathtaking young sun scorched Cates, and a DVD release would be most welcome.
She would quickly become one of the early eighties most interesting young stars with just her second film, Amy Heckerling’s legendary FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (also from 1982). This Cameron Crowe scripted work remains one of the best high school themed films ever shot and it introduced many film lovers to not only Cates but also Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Eric Stoltz,, and Forest Whitaker among others. Cates is delightfully moving in the picture and her scene arising out of the swimming pool in Reinhold’s fantasy is a moment frozen in many film lovers’ dreams. It’s an iconic moment that ranks, for people who grew up with it, with Marlon Brando stripping off his shirt in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE or Marilyn Monroe’s dress blowing up in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH.
Had FAST TIMES RIDGEMONT HIGH done better on its initial release Phoebe Cates could have probably become a huge star, but for two years after she was stuck in mostly youth oriented roles that were a major step backwards from Heckerling’s film. Noel Black’s PRIVATE SCHOOL (1983) certainly has its charms but it hardly broke any new ground for the talented Cates (or its impressive cast which included Betsy Russell, Matthew Modine and Sylvia Kristel), while the less said about her television films like LACE the better.
Phoebe got probably her greatest role though in 1984 with her charming turn as Kate in Joe Dante’s GREMLINS. She oozes charisma and a sexy wholesomeness that hadn’t been seen in American cinema since the early sixties in this role, and I still don’t think I have gotten over seeing her for the first time in this film back when I was eleven during its first release. Her reading of the film’s most controversial scene, where she admits why she hates Christmas, is one of the funniest and most moving sequences from the eighties and is for me the absolute highlight of the film.
Like after FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, the film career of Phoebe Cates should have took off following GREMLINS. She has never been what one would call prolific though and her roles since have been sporadic. She’s added spark to some disappointing films like DATE WITH AN ANGEL (1987) and BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY (1988) and appeared in some good ones like the irresistible SHAG (1989) opposite Bridget Fonda and Dante’s own GREMLINS sequel in this period but she never regained the momentum she had in 1984.
After 1991’s irritating DROP DEAD FRED Phoebe Cates virtually vanished from the screen. Her slight returns have been especially sweet though. 1993’s BODIES, REST AND MOTION is one of the great forgotten films of the nineties, and her work with Bridget Fonda in the film shows her as an actress capable of a lot more depth than probably even her biggest fans had previously recognized. 1994’s PRINCESS CARABOO might not be overwhelmingly noteworthy but Cates is stunning in the film to watch and the fact that it is her last starring role makes it almost haunting.
Phoebe Cates retired from the screen after starring in PRINCESS CARABOO just past the age of thirty to raise her children. She has appeared just once since in a film, 2001’s THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY for her old friend and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH survivor Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nearing forty in the film, Cates is still breathtaking and for people who grew up with her and Leigh it is something special to see them together again. THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY is a fitting farewell to Cates, it’s a strong and personal film from first time director Leigh and Phoebe delivers a nice low key performance for her.
Occasionally I will do a search for Phoebe Cates to see what she is looking like these days, and pictures of her at Premiere’s with her husband Kevin Kline show her to appear seemingly ageless. Now in her mid forties, she still contains more style, sweetness and natural beauty than most actresses half her age could ever hope to. Whether or not she ever returns to the screen remains to be seen but the small legacy she left us is an endearing and potent one. Much like many of us might never recover from a secret crush or a lost friendship from high school, the film career of Phoebe Cates is not likely to fade anytime soon for people who grew up loving her.
For more on Phoebe please visit this rather wonderful fan site.