As If: A Journey Through the Los Angeles of ‘Clueless’Ben Buysse
To this day I can quote the opening speech from Clueless the way Cher can quote Hamlet (the Mel Gibson version, of course). When I was bored in class I would try to run through the movie’s entire screenplay in my head, with the logic that it would kill as much time as the film’s running time (this never worked). The movie’s Beverly Hills princess fantasy still appealed to me, even after I realized that I didn’t really want to be (and never would be) a Beverly Hills princess like Cher or all the perfectly nice, pretty, popular Beverly Hills princesses I went to high school with. I would always be more like the Molly Ringwald characters in Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink than the ’80s prep princess from The Breakfast Club (which was probably preordained when I was born with red hair and named Molly).
Clueless, celebrating its 20th anniversary on July 19, was the first movie I ever saw in theaters multiple times. From the first time I watched it, at the Sherman Oaks 5 theater, with a Primus music video (“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”) running before it, I was obsessed. The moment it ended, I wanted to see it again. At the time, I had no idea that it was such a rare bird: a movie that is generous-hearted and funny, stars women as allies, and portrays Los Angeles as a basically benevolent, diverse place. It’s also written and directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling, which I was blissfully unaware was not the norm.
In 1995 I was 11 and terrified to become a teenager after learning about periods from an informational video shown to me during a Girl Scout meeting. Clueless made me hopeful that high school might be chill after all. For my 12th birthday, I went to see it again with a select group of friends, at the movie theater within the Beverly Center, a monolithic mall in West Hollywood and a Clueless filming location. Afterward, we went to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe on the ground floor. It’s long gone now, but I’ll never forget the prop pink Cadillac rammed into the building’s front to suggest that some particularly hard-rocking soul crashed it there on their zestful way to grab a burger.
During that summer, Clueless mania took hold and we spent our time off from school shopping for cotton candy knee socks at the Contempo Casuals from the movie, hopeful it would help transform us into Cher Horowitz. Much of the movie’s invented slang worked its way into my real vocabulary. “As if,” a linguistic invention of Heckerling’s, runs through my head any time I am outraged. I bought the tie-in book, Clueless: Cher’s Guide to … Whatever, because I was the kind of Lisa Simpson who thought beauty and popularity were something you could achieve by reading a book. Clueless formed the way I saw my city and myself, even as I grew not into a Cher, but a total and utter Tai. Its messages feel fresh, because they remain urgent — the paramount importance of female friendships, of not being defensive about your own ignorance, of trying to see the world optimistically. It’s also a post–1992 riots depiction of Los Angeles as an ethnically diverse place, even if that vision of the city remained stubbornly stratified by class.
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and all her friends are rich, but the movie’s messages are anti-capitalist: Money can’t buy you love, and caring about other people is cool. Sure, Cher happens to do it all while immaculately groomed and in perfect outfits, but the movie manages to make you feel sympathetic toward outrageously privileged teenagers (many of whom are perfectly nice people) and that’s honestly an impressive feat. But it also doesn’t shirk reality. The moment when Cher is obliviously racist toward her maid Lucy (Aida Linares) isn’t far from the truth of upper-class life here, but that Cher learns to recognize her own ignorance (via the prodding of Josh) is cautiously hopeful. Her willingness to examine her own faults is an asset. Cher, like Clueless, is unabashedly feminine and yet universally relatable.1
Clueless is still a perfect movie, and it’s disheartening that in the 20 years since it came out, Hollywood has gotten no more progressive when it comes to female auteurs. Its ’90s progressive optimism is even more admirable now. Clueless is the rare comedy that really cares, not only for its characters but also its audience. It never condescends to anyone. It’s kind-hearted, with an acid bite. And it makes some bold, Californian claims true to its Jane Austen origins: that vanity and kindness are not incompatible. That just because a girl is really, really pretty and privileged doesn’t mean she is automatically a bad person or your enemy. That beauty is only skin-deep until you make over your soul. That stories about girls and women are not stupid and unimportant, but vital — and the more specific, the better. And that Los Angeles is not by its nature a superficial or stupid place, that it has its own sort of emotional intelligence that has to be understood on its own terms. One of those major terms is its geography, and Clueless is a sprawling portrait of L.A.’s unique beauty.
Cher’s House — 5148 Louise Avenue, Encino, CA 91316
OK, no buggin’ but, yes, the exterior shot of Cher’s house is in Encino, not Beverly Hills. It’s actually right near Rahad the drug dealer’s house from Boogie Nights! But this is movie geography, so your mind accepts that Cher’s “classic” nouveau riche home (“the columns date all the way back to 1972!”) is in the 310, not the 818. Because all told, there’s not really that much difference between the porn palaces of Encino and the glittering manses of Bel-Air except physical (and mental) location. But mental location is huge!
Dionne’s House — 705 North Sierra Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
The exterior shot of Dionne’s neo-French chateau really is in Beverly Hills. The ritual of picking up friends in cars to do anything is very Californian, where pretty much any activity begins with driving. See also: American Graffiti. Part of what makes Clueless so beloved is the friendship between Cher and Dionne, the prime example of the movie’s racial diversity. So few teen movies feature black characters, but Heckerling’s Clueless breakfast club is casually diverse in a way that feels like the real Los Angeles. Dionne and Murray, rich black teenagers from Beverly Hills, felt familiar to me because I knew their real-life equivalents, rich black teens who shop at Fred Segal and eat at the Ivy and are well aware that your average ignorant person might still somehow assume they are from “the hood,” even though their hood is Brentwood.
It wasn’t until later that I realized how unusual it was to see black teenagers onscreen at all, let alone rich ones. Since so many movies, particularly movies set in a fictionalized dystopian Los Angeles, enforce the idea that diversity leads to conflict, it’s still refreshing to see a movie like Clueless suggesting that racial diversity in social settings like high school leads to the normalization of that diversity. The students at Bronson Alcott are extremely wealthy, but in Clueless’s L.A., that wealth knows no color boundary.
There’s also Summer, the illuminated-snowman-toting, Asian American hottie who offers Cher a ride home from the Val party. While Summer appears briefly, just the existence of an Asian American character (who speaks California English, of course) is still unrealistically rare onscreen. Clueless also includes an early nod to the wealthy Westside’s substantial Iranian American constituency, which Cher, in her harmless yet ill-informed way, refers to as “The Persian Mafia.” The only Latino characters in the film are service workers for the white elites, which is unfortunately common in L.A.’s wealthy class. But overall, Clueless feels optimistic about L.A.’s racial tapestry, at least within social class. And even though Stacey Dash has done some weird things IRL, Dionne remains a great cinematic take on a “Carefree Black Girl.” And Cher is at least half-Jewish (as is Silverstone), maybe the first time a Jewish girl was ever portrayed as a shiny blonde California goddess.
Bronson Alcott High Exteriors — Occidental College, Eagle Rock
Bronson Alcott High is actually Occidental College, the university in Northeast L.A.’s Eagle Rock neighborhood that Barack Obama went to for two years before transferring to Columbia University. This is where Cher, Tai, and Dionne do their walk-and-talk through the fictional high school’s campus. It also contains the infamous grassy knoll where Bronson Alcott’s loadies hang out.
Bronson Alcott High Interiors and Tennis Court — Grant High School, Valley Glen
Grant High School, in the east Valley neighborhood of Valley Glen, was used to portray Bronson Alcott’s classrooms and tennis court. Bronson Alcott High is, in many ways, meant to be analogous to Beverly Hills High, the only public high school in the absurdly affluent city on L.A.’s Westside. Beverly Hills, 90210, another formative, influential fictional account of life in L.A., was set at Beverly Hills High but shot at Torrance High School in Torrance, a small city in the southern half of the L.A. metro area. Grant High has been used as the setting of a generic high school in a billion movies, TV shows, and music videos. It is also right down the street from the house I grew up in, which means I take pride in recognizing it onscreen.
Like all good American teenagers of the late 20th century, Cher and her friends spend a lot of time at malls. In Clueless, a few L.A. malls are featured. The Westside Pavilion in Westwood is where the girls go when they blow off class to see a Christian Slater movie, but the interior of the Contempo Casuals is actually in the previously mentioned Beverly Center, on the corner of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. And the mall where Tai gets hung over the balcony by some local bozos is the former Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks, now a Westfield shopping center, where I spent 90 percent of my own teenage hangouts. Contempo Casuals is no longer with us, displaced by fast-fashion stores like Forever 21, which peddle cheap clothes, currently including a lot of ’90s trends straight out of Clueless, in case you need new cotton candy knee socks.
Today’s Chers and Dionnes are more likely to be found at outdoor shopping meccas like the Grove, in the Fairfax district, than in the icebox malls of days past. Thanks to swashbuckling developer Rick Caruso, open-air malls designed to look like quaint, small-town villages complete with trolleys, miniature parks, and adjacent condos have stolen much of the popular imagination in Los Angeles from the air-conditioned shopping centers of the ’80s and ’90s.
Circus Liquor — 5600 Vineland Avenue, North Hollywood, CA 91601
God bless Circus Liquor, the North Hollywood liquor store with the scary neon clown on Burbank Boulevard. Circus Liquor is best known as the scene where Cher is mugged, but it’s been used as a sketchy, dimly lit destination more than once. It’s also a great liquor store, and the sign looks especially beautiful (and glowingly creepy) around sundown. L.A.’s Museum of Neon Art, formerly in downtown, is reopening in Glendale soon. MoNA’s collection includes some famous defunct Los Angeles neon signs, including the original Grauman’s Chinese Theatre sign. L.A.’s signature neon landscape is becoming lost as most signage turns to LEDs. The clown sign is also part of an L.A. history of gaudy architectural flourishes that includes the Tail O’The Pup (R.I.P.), a hot dog stand in the shape of a giant hot dog that I loved going to as a kid, even if there were sometimes rats running around on the outdoor deck, and the recently reopened La Caña Restaurant (the building is in the shape of a giant barrel), now named the Idle Hour, in North Hollywood.
Valley Party House — 16401 Knollwood Drive, Granada Hills, CA 91344 (demolished)
As if Westside princess Cher and her friends would ever go to a rager in Sun Valley, or Granada Hills for that matter. I mean, maybe they’d make the trek out to Sherman Oaks or Studio City if promised a really great party full of Baldwins, but there’s no way they’d ever go that far north of Ventura Boulevard. Realistically, Cher is not really sure where she is, because to Westsiders like her, the Valley is an amorphous and foreign land. Heckerling perfectly captures the vibe of a Valley tract house high school party when the parents are out of town — hazy with pot smoke and hormones — right down to the person puking in the pool.
Clueless has become emblematic of the ’90s, but voices like Heckerling’s are needed now more urgently than ever. I really loved Vamps, the Heckerling and Silverstone reunion from 2012 about two ageless vampire party-girl best friends (played as screwball heroines by Silverstone and Krysten Ritter) that showed Heckerling still has her frothy yet meaningful touch. It also showed the maturation of her still basically bright outlook on life, with some interesting stuff about women, youth culture, and aging. Clueless may be 20 years old, but it still feels current because it’s a fantasy about inclusionism, optimism, and empathy — things that never go out of style. And in conclusion, may I please remind you it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty.