Quick Bit: ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ and the Red Bikini Moment
Film: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
What it’s About: The interconnecting stories of a group of Southern California high school students looking for love, sex, parties and a meaning to it all.
Quick Bit: Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) is a tall lanky, lovable loser who is in his last year of school. He works at a local dive called All-American Burger and even has a pretty girlfriend named Lisa (Amanda Wyss). But he’s not entirely happy with all of this, and as his relationship with Lisa is not the strongest, wants to find a way to break it off with her so he can spend his senior year single. The problem is, after he gets fired for being rude to a customer, Lisa becomes the only stable thing in his life and now she doesn’t want him, leaving him to date other boys. Not long after, he finds work at another restaurant and comes home to find his sister Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) hosting a small pool party with some friends, including the very attractive Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates). The red-bikini clad girl has him instantly entranced and he is overcome with sexual desire for her, stealing away into the nearby bathroom where he fantasizes about the girl emerging from the pool in slow motion, rivulets of water sluicing off her pale skin, slowing approaching him while unclasping the top of her already skimpy bikini, revealing herself to him as she moves in for a kiss.
Why it Matters: The now iconic moment is generally considered one the greatest nude scenes in film for its brief topless shot of Cates as she walks toward Reinhold, which is a remarkable thing considering the staggering number of other contenders. The reason this holds reign over so many other more lengthy and gratuitous nude moments is two-fold, it being filmed with a powerful sense of eroticism but also a raw, honest and very deliberately jarring truthfulness. Directed by Amy Heckling and written by Cameron Crowe (who based some of the story on his own life), neither are trying to objectify Linda Barrett. In fact, the sexually active girl is a very strong, independent young woman who has established herself as intelligent and influential, not holding the typical stereotypes of the ‘loose’ girl in this genre of film. While boys in teen coming of age movies, particularly at this time, are sexual scavengers, allowed to appear almost hedonistic in their rampaging pursuits of sex, girls are targets, bodies to leer at and conquer.
Here though was something new, a beautiful girl with smarts and a perfectly normal desire and openly expressive want for physical intimacy, and because we’ve come to see this throughout the film as positive characteristics rather than negative (or derogatory), we are equally drawn to her as much as Brad. The important thing about the scene is one that many comment as being the parts they wish weren’t shown, the intercutting of Brad visibly masturbating on screen as the fantasy blossoms. The male gaze, a concept referring to the predominate use in visual media focused on the male perspective and the attitudes of such toward women, is broken in this magnificent sequence, as the precept relies on the woman being the uninterrupted focus and the male viewer (and more importantly, the knowledge of what it implies) safely separated from the experience. Heckerling doesn’t just bend that idea, she snaps it in two and forces us to face what the scene is really about and what Linda represents in the moment. The images of Brad in his moment of private personal satisfaction is nearly on display as much as Linda’s nude body, and even more crucial, she walks in on it, catching Brad in the act, as it were, the target wholly disarming the hunter. The lovely Phoebe Cates will be eternally remembered for this single thrilling moment, but it is not just for removing her top. The pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a highwater mark in the genre for its twist of the naked girl trope and while it is still an extremely sensual, exquisitely photographed image of a sexualized fantasy, it remains memorable for much more.
Cameron Crowe (screenplay), Cameron Crowe (book)
Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates