When ‘Valley Girl’ (and Nicolas Cage) Shook Up Hollywood
When ‘Valley Girl’ (and Nicolas Cage) Shook Up Hollywood
Four shots of nude breasts. That’s what the producers of “Valley Girl” demanded of their potential director, Martha Coolidge. If she wanted the gig — overseeing what was set to be a low-budget, exploitative high-school romp that could lure teen boys like “Porky’s” did — she’d need to make sure the requisite skin appeared onscreen.
Coolidge agreed and quickly found a loophole: “They didn’t say how long the shots had to be. Not smart of them.”
The nudity appears in the 1983 film for mere seconds, presented frankly and lacking any titillation. In fact, Coolidge transformed “Valley Girl” from its superficial beginnings into a teen classic full of heart and a trippin’-dicular new wave soundtrack. The movie is making a comeback of sorts — it was recently made available for digital download for the first time, and on May 8, a musical remake arrives on-demand starring Jessica Rothe, Josh Whitehouse and the controversial YouTube star Logan Paul.
Eager to capitalize on the fad, the indie production company Atlantic Entertainment Group greenlit the original movie, batting away Zappa’s trademark-infringement suit. The budget was just $350,000. To compare, fellow 1983 coming-of-age comedy “Risky Business” cost $6.2 million. Coolidge took a mere $5,000 directing fee and many of the crew members were volunteers.
“I borrowed money from my mother to eat,” Coolidge said. “But I was making a real movie and that was what was important.”
Loosely based on “Romeo and Juliet,” the film is a star-crossed love story between Julie (played by Deborah Foreman), a white-bread “valley girl” from the San Fernando Valley, and Randy (Nicolas Cage), an angsty punk rocker from Hollywood. Coolidge’s goal was to show Los Angeles and the teens who lived in it as authentically as possible, void of two-dimensional stereotypes.
“I had tremendous inner conviction that I knew how to treat the material, even though there was no proof that I was right,” said Coolidge, who at the time was known for her documentary work. “I was very determined to make it real.”
To do so, she’d need a leading man who could convey both sensitivity and humor while cruising down Hollywood Boulevard in a denim vest.
After offering the role of Randy to Judd Nelson, who turned out to be unavailable and would go on to play the rebellious John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” Coolidge found 18-year-old Cage’s headshot in the discard pile. She grabbed it, telling the casting director they needed to find someone like him. Someone who wasn’t a conventional “pretty boy.”
A shy Cage was summoned to meet with Coolidge. Instantly impressed, she had him return a second time to formally audition. “When he came back and read, it was riveting. He was goofy and intelligent and a rebel, but also handsome in his own way,” Coolidge recalled. “I said, ‘I want you in the film. I’m going to make you a star.’ I can’t believe I said that to him, but I did.” (Cage wasn’t available to comment.)
After a small part in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), Cage, a nephew of the “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, changed his last name to distance himself from his famous family. Coolidge had spent several years working with Francis at his Zoetrope Studios, but it was only when Cage told her he’d have to check his production schedule on a Coppola film he was shooting, that she learned of the young actor’s pedigree.
“He said, ‘Please don’t tell anyone,’” she recalled. “People caught on as they got to know him, but nobody made a big stink over it because if he didn’t, you didn’t. It kept him earning it all on his own, so to speak.”
And even in Cage’s first leading role, there were clear glimpses of the creativity and method acting he’d become known for throughout his eccentric career.
It was Cage’s idea to improvise the breakup line that mixed profanity and Valley Girl slang, and to spit his chewing gum at Julie’s preppy ex, Tommy. It was also Cage’s idea to sleep in his car in Hollywood for most of the 20-day shoot to better understand Randy and to shave his chest hair into a triangle (after being told he needed to lose some of it to appear his age).
The role of Julie was easier to fill, even if Foreman didn’t fit the California mold. “I grew up in Texas, and I didn’t know anything about valley girls,” Foreman said. “This was my first introduction into this culture.”
In fact, only Heidi Holicker, who played Julie’s friend Stacey, was actually from the valley.
Before filming, Cage, in character as Randy, wrote Foreman a poem that she still keeps in a scrapbook at her mother’s house. “I think the title is ‘All-American Girl,’” she said. “It was completely and utterly sweet.”
In an interview with the director (and “Valley Girl” superfan) Kevin Smith in 2018, Cage admitted it was “easy for the performance to happen in ‘Valley Girl’ because I absolutely adored Deborah Foreman. I had a massive crush on her.”
Their close bond made shooting the breakup scene difficult, but despite their obvious chemistry, Foreman insisted, she and Cage were never a real-life couple.
“We absolutely were fond of each other, but Nick and I never dated,” she said. “After the film wrapped he invited me up to his uncle’s home in Northern California. And it was in that period of two or three days I knew we were not a couple. Julie and Randy were a couple, not Deborah and Nick.”
During filming, the nonexistent wardrobe budget meant most of the female characters’ outfits came from the closets of the women working on the film. The prom scene gowns and tuxedos were lent by local shops, and the decidedly nonunion extras were all area college students — including members of rival fraternities who got into a brawl and trashed the gym during the shoot.
But the threadbare nature of the production, filmed entirely on location and often sans permits, also bred camaraderie among the young cast. They spent time at a valley high school to study the culture and bonded on their own, frequenting the Hollywood nightclubs Seven Seas and Florentine Gardens.
“Because we didn’t have trailers or dressing rooms, we were always together,” Holicker recalled. “When we shot the club scene at the Central” — now the Viper Room — “Debbie and I got dressed on a dirt floor downstairs” along with Cage, Cameron Dye, who played Randy’s friend, and the band.
The film made a point of showcasing the ’80s new wave music taking over clubs and airwaves with on-screen performances from the Plimsouls and Josie Cotton. And Modern English’s “I Melt With You” became a chart hit after it played during Randy and Julie’s falling-in-love montage.
“I had spent four years dancing in the clubs and getting to know music because I was researching another rock ‘n’ roll movie that never got made,” Coolidge said. “I felt this was a music generation, but I also wanted the music to bring something more emotional and vigorous to the story.”
Without the money for a wide release — or even a revised credits reel with the correct track listings for the songs — “Valley Girl” premiered on the West Coast on April 29, 1983. But it made its money back opening weekend and quickly expanded nationwide, ultimately earning more than $17 million (the equivalent of $44 million today).
“I found ‘Valley Girl’ to be surprisingly convincing in its portrait of kids in love,” Roger Ebert wrote in his glowing review for The Chicago Sun-Times, adding, “Maybe because it was directed by a woman, Martha Coolidge, this is one of the rare Teenager Movies that doesn’t try to get laughs by insulting and embarrassing teenage girls.”
“Valley Girl” arrived eight months after Amy Heckerling’s teen hit, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but despite their pioneering successes, Coolidge said, “it didn’t open the gates” for many opportunities for female directors, like her, Heckerling or Claudia Weill.
“There was one chance for me, one chance for Claudia, one chance for Amy. The studios couldn’t wrap their minds around a woman taking charge,” Coolidge said. “It was cheaper and easier to get the girl than the guy, but it stayed pretty unwelcoming for a long time. And in fact, still is in many ways.”
As for the musical remake, which includes Alicia Silverstone in a small role as the adult Julie, Coolidge said, “I think when a movie is great to start with, then it’s almost really sort of embarrassing to redo it. To me, one shouldn’t touch films like that. I’m sure companies want to because they think they’ll make money, but I find it depressing, actually.”
Foreman, who has a cameo in the musical alongside Holicker and another member of the original cast, Elizabeth Daily, is more optimistic.
“I think this reboot is going to make us all feel that love again that we had in the ’80s,” she said. “It was a time in our life where people were prospering, the music was bouncy and the films were lovely and about hope.”