One morning last week, I woke up and wondered what to wear. I don’t normally bug about my outfits, but that evening, I would be meeting someone who (probably) thought way hard about clothes, and I didn’t want to look totally clueless. The choice was obvious: A blue and black plaid dress. I ruffled through my drawers looking for white socks to wear with loafers. But in the mirror I saw a total Monet: It was not obvious that I was paying tribute to Cher Horowitz, the star of the hit ’90s coming-of-age movie, Clueless. I wished Cher were around to give me a makeover.
Later that day, I bought a bag of low-fat popcorn and journeyed out to North Bethesda. I arrived at a modest pile-of-bricks house, and a petite woman answered the door. She was wearing a white graphic t-shirt and black shorts; she wore no visible makeup and her nails weren’t painted. For a woman who spent hours interviewing people about the 63 outfit changes Cher made in the movie, she struck me as surprisingly uninterested in clothes.
Former Washington Post writer Jen Chaney is the author of As If, an oral history of Clueless as told by the director Amy Heckerling and the cast and crew. The book, released in time for the movie’s 20th anniversary this summer, is a deep dive into how Heckerling came up with the idea to put a Beverly Hills spin on Jane Austen’s Emma and why the movie is still relevant decades later. For superfans, Chaney reveals satisfyingly nitpicky details, like what happened to the costumes after the production wrapped.
On Saturday, she’ll be reading at Politics & Prose. On July 16, AFI Silver Theatre will screen the movie, and afterwards, Chaney will sit for a Q&A. The following weekend, on July 25, she will participate in the Newseum’s Inside Media program.
Ahead of the events, I asked Chaney if she’d be willing to watch the movie with me. For Chaney, it was at least the 15th or 20th time she’d seen it. She’s lost count, she said. But she’s still not sick of it, she promised, as we settled onto her red velvet couch with a bowl of popcorn and her pudgy dog Casey.
The first time Chaney saw the movie, she was 23 years-old—just about my current age. “I remember that I loved it,” she said. But despite her enthusiasm for chokers, she was past the age of becoming a Clueless fanatic. She never would have guessed that 20 years later, she would learn its every detail in the process of writing a book about it.
On the other hand, I’d been too young to become a fanatic. It had been years since I’d watched the movie, and I was excited to remember why my sister and I adored it, and why I chose one of Cher’s soliloquies to act out in middle-school theater class.
The plan was to watch the 90-minute movie while Chaney pointed out some interesting moments she’d discovered during the course of writing As If.
I realized there were so many references in the movie that I’d never understood. When Cher’s crush Christian announces that he’s brought over Spartacus and Some Like It Hot to watch during their “date”—those movies are a big hint to the audience that he’s gay. When Cher and her friends are leaving the Val(ley) party and Cher encourages Elton to drive Tai home—that comes directly from Emma: Emma goes to a party and there’s a question of who will go home with whom in which carriage. And Elton shares his name with Mr. Elton, the character who proposes to Emma in the midst of her attempt to match him up with her friend Harriet. (As a former English major, the sections on Emma and Heckerling’s use of slang were my favorite parts of As If.)
Chaney also made observations that true Clueless buffs would find funny—that Cher’s stepbrother Josh, played by Paul Rudd, puts the mayonnaise on the turkey, instead of the bread, when he makes his sandwich. That Cher’s last name in the script and on some props—like her report card—is Hamilton, not Horowitz. It’s a tribute to characters in Heckerling’s first big film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That Sarah Michelle Gellar had been considered for the part of Cher’s rival Amber and Dave Chappelle was considered for her friend Murray.
For the most part, Chaney was right: the movie did hold up. Underneath the slew of ’90s references is the universal story of a teenager growing up and trying to find her place in the world. It’s just as relevant today as it was in 1815, when Austen published Emma.
And in some ways, the movie was ahead of its time—Heckerling accurately predicted that people would begin using touchscreens and talk on their cellphones constantly. But more importantly, it’s trailblazing in its portrait of Cher.
“She thinks she can do anything she wants to, and there’s something sort of admirable about that, especially for girls,” Chaney reflected. “Because I think girls, I mean, not to stereotype, but I know myself, I always say I’m sorry for things that are really not my fault, and I’m always trying to be super, super polite, and she is not concerned about that. She’s just who she is unabashedly and I think that, even if there’s some things about her that you don’t want to emulate, that core thing is a really, really important thing for girls to see.”
And boys too. As we were finishing up, Chaney’s eight-year-old son Luke and her husband came home. Luke hasn’t seen the movie yet, but in a couple years, Chaney said, it will probably be appropriate for him.
“Clueless, then, is something that simultaneously past and present and future,” Chaney writes in the introduction to her book. “Watching it may sometimes make us ache for a ‘back then,’ when we had just graduated from college, or were in high school, or watched it during our first middle school sleepover. But the reason it’s so good, as good as only a handful of teen movies can legitimately claim to be, is because every time you turn it on, it also feels very right now.”
… I’m Audi.
Jen Chaney reads from As If Sat. July 11 at 6 p.m. at Politics & Prose. Free. 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 364-1919.