Mel Horowitz (played by Dan Hedaya): “You mean to tell me that you argued your way from a C+ to an A-?”
Cher, his daughter (played by Alicia Silverstone): “Totally based on my powers of persuasion. You proud?”
Mel: “Honey, I couldn't be happier than if they were based on real grades.”— Clueless (1995), written and directed by Amy Heckerling
You think that Americans wouldn’t take to a contemporary retelling of Emma? As if!
It’s been 20 years this week since Jane Austen’s comedy of manners about a romantic busybody in Regency England—now with the title character turned into the Beverly Hills high-school girl Cher—premiered.
It didn’t take too long before the film spawned a whole slew of catchphrases, including “Baldwin” (an attractive male, named for a set of brothers ubiquitous in ‘90s cinema), “audi” (a threat that a character would be outta here), “Betty” (a female beauty, like ‘40s pinup queen Betty Grable or Cher’s own mom, who died of a “freak accident during a routine liposuction”), “cake boy” (a gay male—or, in the film’s more precise description, “a disco-dancin’, Oscar Wilde-readin’, Streisand-ticket-holdin’ friend of Dorothy, know what I’m sayin’?”), and, of course, “Whatever” (used so often by Bob Dole in his Presidential bid the following year that it should have been his campaign slogan).
Paramount Pictures had asked Amy Heckerling, who had scored a success the decade before with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, for another teen film. Instantly, she recalled her own reading in school of Jane Austen’s novel, and set about borrowing its plot, themes and characters.
My particular favorite among the latter is the lawyer Mel Horowitz. As played by the straight-faced but hilarious Dan Hedaya, Mel takes very seriously indeed his role as a single parent. He might be fierce in court, but he’s even more of a tiger when it comes to protecting his girl’s virtue. “Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel,” he tells one suitor. “I doubt anybody would miss you.”
At this point, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else in the role. But Jerry Orbach, who had the inside track on the part (memories were still fresh of him as Jennifer Grey’s doctor dad in Dirty Dancing), couldn’t get out of a scheduling conflict with his long-running TV series, Law and Order.
That brings to mind one of my favorite cultural parlor games: Alternative Casting—i.e., imagining how an iconic role might have turned out with others bruited about at the time for the part (e.g., Marlon Brando instead of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, or Robert Redford and Doris Day instead of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate). Among those who auditioned for the Cher of Clueless was Reese Witherspoon and Zooey Deschanel. It’s easy to imagine Cher Horowitz’s flair for matchmaking morphing into Tracy Flick’s relentless campaigning in Election, though harder to think of the fashion plate Cher transforming into Ms. Deschanel’s “adorkable” New Girl.
Clueless ushered in a bonanza of Austen adaptations—for the big screen, small screen and—alas!—“Teen Paranormal Romance” bookshelf. Emma spawned not just a more conventional costume comedy (with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role) but also a British TV movie starring Kate Beckinsale. Others who did well with period adaptations of Austen included Kate Winslet (a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) and Emma Thompson (Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay to along with a Best Actress nom) for Sense and Sensibility, Keira Knightley (Best Actress Oscar nomination) for Pride and Prejudice, and Frances O’Connor for Mansfield Park.
As in the case of Clueless, other adaptations of Austen have been pretty loose, with authors glossing on the original text. The results have ranged widely, from the respectable (Death Comes to Pemberly, a Masterpiece Mystery adaptation of P.D. James’ sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding’s novel of a modern British “singleton” encountering her Darcy) to the too-atrocious-to-contemplate, let alone read (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Oh, what would dear Jane think?).