Pretty In The Past: Phoebe Cates

There’s something uniquely Phoebe Catesian about Phoebe Cates that allowed her to shine - however briefly - exactly when we needed her to
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Publish date:
December 19, 2012
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pretty in the past, Phoebe Cates, drop dead fred

Okay, now before you jump down to the comments and start typing, “WTF, Allan?!?!? Phoebe Cates is only 49 years old and still gorgeous! In what universe would she qualify as someone who was “Pretty in the Past” you short fat Canadian asshole? I hope you get cancer!” (or something to that effect) lemme explain - there is method to my madness.

It is true, Phoebe Cates is still very much an extremely beautiful woman with many years left to live, but - I would argue - the Phoebe Cates we all remember and whose name, to this day, still manages to inspire a feeling of communal reverence, essentially ceased to be 18 years ago, when she retired from show business to raise her family with her husband, Kevin Kline. That Phoebe Cates is the one to whom this post is dedicated and she is very much a perfect example of what this series is about.

As I hope you’ve noticed, these profiles are as much about the power images have to convey a group feeling - a sense of consensus where nearly all of us can look at a photograph or watch a movie and decide together that this person we are watching is special - someone worthy of being adored and remembered. Phoebe Cates is just such a figure.

Which is impressive when you consider that her career was actually quite short, consisting of just 17 films over 12 years. And of those 17, only 3 have managed to stand the test of time and become a part of the cultural lexicon (although I do know at least one xoJane contributor who’s a vocal proponent of the flop Rik Mayall vehicle Drop Dead Fred). Why then is Phoebe Cates still so fondly remembered today*?

C’mon. Don’t pretend like I really have to spell it out for you.

I have to tread lightly here. When I proposed this post to Rebecca, she told me it would be fine, “…as long as we're not being gross and objectifying her in the style of the Daily Mail…” Interestingly, the reason why this might be a problem in this case was never mentioned. It’s never been an issue before, yet I understand exactly what she meant.

Still, you can’t talk about Phoebe Cates without talking about that scene. It’s the reason why she still remains a part of the pop cultural consciousness, 30 years after it was originally released. But why? What is it specifically about this moment that has caused it to linger far past its reasonable expiration date?

Many would blame nostalgia and point out that for folks of a certain age it was the first scene of its kind that many of us saw and so we remember it fondly. I know in my case this isn’t true (if it was, then this post would be about Kelly Preston), but it helps that I actually witnessed with my own eyes the strange special power the moment still has today, even on someone who wasn’t alive when it was created.

For the past few years I have taken it upon myself to give my nephew Lynden an education in the kinds of movies he might otherwise miss thanks to a young person’s natural inclination to the current and new. When he turned 15 not too long ago, I decided it was time to finally show him Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which I saw for the first time when I was 11, for those who might deem it inappropriate for a boy his age). As I retrieved my copy of the film from my collection I told him that the movie contained a scene that many people consider very special and how certain folks are still known to blush at the mention of the name “Phoebe Cates”.

What I didn’t tell him were any details of what was in that scene or who this “Phoebe Cates” person was. Yet, as soon The Cars’ Moving in Stereo began to play on the soundtrack, he turned over to me from where he was sitting and said, “This is what you were talking about, huh?”

The fact is that '80s cinema is loaded to the rafters with scenes featuring beautiful women taking their tops off. Based on description alone, there’s no reason why this one example should stand out. Yet it does.

The credit ultimately has to go to its star and the reason why I believe we find her presence in it so affecting is because it’s a perfect visual statement of the power of female sexuality as seen through the eyes of a man who understands he is probably unworthy of it. It is - quite literally - a masturbatory fantasy in which a young, adorable woman is transformed into a glorious fertility goddess of such immeasurable confidence and authority she causes the whole world to slow down in order to honour her existence. Instead of being objectified, she dominates - we are mere slaves to her whims.

That or it’s the red bikini.

But as much time as I put into writing about it, here is where I say that I believe this is only actually the second greatest moment in Phoebe Cates’ career. The first being a holiday-appropriate scene that features one of my favourite cinematic non sequiturs of all time.

According to Gremlins director Joe Dante, this proved to be the most controversial scene in the entire movie. Producer Steven Spielberg reportedly hated it and tried to convince Dante to cut it from the film (although - to his credit - he stopped short of actually forcing Dante to do so). Since then it has become the most discussed part of the popular film, the debate waged between those who feel that it’s terrible because it’s weird and strange and serves no narrative purpose and those (such as myself) who think it’s brilliant for pretty much the exact same reasons.

It’s about as dark as comedy gets. Phoebe Cates’ performance is pitch perfect, nailing the pathos without tipping the hand of its inherent ridiculousness. It’s a scene that perfectly emblemizes the film’s strange mixture of comedy and horror - a classic example of Mel Brooks’ famous delineation between comedy and tragedy, “Tragedy is I get a painful hangnail and go to see a doctor to get it treated; comedy is you fall down an open manhole into a sewer and die.” The story she tells is absurd and hilarious, yet her pain and despair is real and entirely reasonable.

It’s a moment of pure existentialism in a mainstream Hollywood film that is inspired by the least existential of mainstream holidays. That takes some serious nipples to get away with and a major reason Dante (and screenwriter Chris Columbus) do so is because Phoebe Cates had the chops to pull it off.

It says something about the impact any single scene in a movie can have on us that Phoebe Cates is still so fondly remembered today, two decades after leaving Hollywood behind. Whether it’s Fast Times or Gremlins, she stood front and centre in two cinematic moments that shocked and amazed us and which are still discussed, referenced and admired today. There are many successful performers who have worked for decades without having one of those moments, much less two.

Was she just lucky? The right pretty face at the right time? Maybe, but I prefer to think that there’s something uniquely Phoebe Catesian about Phoebe Cates that allowed her to shine - however briefly - exactly when we needed her to.

*Other than the fact that her name is so much fun to write and say. My compulsion to always write out her full name is enough to make me understand why so many of you refuse to just call me Allan.

Picture Credit: Rex Features