Clueless | 1995
Amy Heckerling’s update of Jane Austen’s Emma is surprisingly successful, arguably capturing the spirit of the author’s pointed social observations more accurately than a traditional ‘period’ piece (the book too was bang up to date social observation when it was written).
Austen’s Emma Woodhouse becomes Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), a more-than-comfortably off high school student whose life revolves around shopping, fashion, shopping, matchmaking and shopping.
Her ‘classic’ Beverly Hills home, (“901 Drury Lane, Beverly Hills, 90212”) with those columns dating all the way back to 1972, is 5148 Louise Avenue, north of Ventura Boulevard, Encino in, horror! – the Valley. As if!
This is a bit of a fib, by the way. The house was built in 1993. But that’s still pretty old, huh?
It’s not really worth visiting as the house is set well back behind neighbouring properties and there’s nothing to see but the gate.
It’s 705 North Sierra Drive, actually in Beverly Hills, just below Sunset and a few blocks west of Doheny Drive.
The ostentatiously spacious grounds and buildings of ‘Bronson Alcott High School’ are those of Occidental College, 1600 Campus Road in Eagle Rock, northeast of LA towards Pasadena.
Occidental has a screen history dating back to the Thirties with the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers in 1932 and the 1936 musical Pigskin Parade, with Judy Garland. It’s also famous as ‘California University’ in TV’s Beverly Hills 90210 but its moment of screen glory must be as the site of the Vulcan ritual in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.
The school’s interiors were filmed in Ulysses S Grant High School, 13000 Oxnard Street in Valley Glen, back in the Valley again. Grant High previously featured in 2011's Crazy Stupid Love, though not in 1957’s teen delinquent drama The Young Stranger, despite being the school James MacArthur supposedly attends.
Cher’s ‘place of sanctuary’ mall is Westside Pavilion, 10800 Pico Boulevard, West Los Angeles. It’s too late for that spot of retail therapy – the mall closed in 2019 – it now houses offices for Google.
Austen’s ‘Mr Knightley’ turns up in the form of Josh (Paul Rudd), Cher’s step-brother with whom she shares a predictably fractious sibling-style relationship.
Josh does turn out to have his uses, as the licensed driver to accompany learner Cher as she weaves her Jeep casually north on along Cliffwood Avenue in Brentwood.
The ‘Harriet Smith’ character is the plain, counter-cultureish and “adorably clueless” Tai (Brittany Murphy), who becomes Cher’s new project.
At a raucous party in the Valley, Cher does her best to manoeuvre the couple together. Houses in LA can have a distressingly short life span (to us Brits, anyway) and the party house, which stood at 16401 Knollwood Drive at Woodley Drive up in Granada Hills North, has since been completely rebuilt.
Cher’s plans come to nothing when Elton loses interest in Tai but is a bit too determined to offer Cher a lift home.
True to Austen’s novel, Elton (“Mr Elton”) chooses the ride home to reveal his feelings for Cher. Events move from bad to worse when Cher indignantly exits the car only to find herself relieved of her purse and, more importantly her phone, by a mugger.
Reduced to calling Josh from a payphone, she states that she’s marooned in ‘Sun Valley’. Not quite true. Elton parked in the lot in front of Circus Liquor, 5600 Vineland Avenue, North Hollywood, with the illuminated clown sign that's lit up the Valley for 60 years. You can see the landmark again in Nick Cassavetes’ dark and underrated 2006 movie Alpha Dog, with Justin Timberlake and Anton Yelchin.
Stylish and good-looking – a real Baldwin, in fact – new boy Christian (Justin Walker) is about to become Cher’s new match for Tai. Ignoring the ominous ‘Road to Nowhere’ notice alongside Christian’s first appearance and a handful of sly cultural references, Cher naively decides that this one is for her.
In another scene taken directly from the book, at a boisterous dance party, Tai is left, ignored and alone, as Cher pursues Christian and Elton blanks her. It’s Josh who shows a little concern and asks her to dance.
The party, with music from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, is held at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 North Central Avenue (according to the excellent shot-for-shot guide at discoverlosangeles.com), a former police car warehouse in Little Tokyo, which had been renovated by architect Frank Gehry in 1983 to become an exhibition space.
From this point on, Cher’s carefully orchestrated little world begins to fall apart, first as she realises why Christian enjoys watching Spartacus so much (the Sixties epic's Snails and Oysters Theme is actually listed in the end credits).
Then she witnesses the closeness between Dionne and boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison) after a near-death experience when learner driver Dionne accidentally strays onto a busy freeway.
Far from Beverly Hills, the ‘freeway’ is West Shoreline Drive down south in Long Beach, where the road runs under Queens Way toward the very recognisable Hyatt Regency (the funeral for Leo the Fart in Last Action Hero, with (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was held on the hotel’s roof).
After her own near-death experience (kind of) in the Mall, Tai has taken over Cher’s position as Queen Bee in the school hierarchy and sets her sights on, of all people, Josh.
This pushes Cher into a crisis which demands its own cinematic montage, and theme song (All By Myself), as she wanders distractedly along Rodeo Drive, past the Tiffany store, down the faux-Italian ‘Via Rodeo’ steps and fountain at Wilshire Boulevard and in front of (for no real reason other than it looks good) the Spadena House, aka the Witch’s House, 516 Walden Drive, Beverly Hills.
Built in 1921 as combined production offices and movie set for the Irving C Willat movie company, the fairytale cottage stood originally at 6509 West Washington Boulevard in Culver City. It was moved to its present location in the Thirties and gets its own starring role in the ’Middle Ages’ flashbacks for Roger Corman’s 1957 The Undead.
Eventually, as the fountain she happens to be passing springs into illuminated life, she realises that, yes, of course it’s Josh she loves.
The illuminated water feature is Beverly Hills’ quaintly named Electric Fountain (well, it dates from 1931), standing on Santa Monica Boulevard at the intersection with Wilshire Boulevard, across from the Beverly Hilton.
With a spiritual makeover, involving the ‘Pismo Beach Disaster Relief’ project, Cher begins to make amends.
At the Amateur Skateboarding League bash, Cher makes up with Tai and Tai, in turn, reunites with Travis. The event is held at Shoreline Village, 429 Shoreline Village Drive in Long Beach again, with the Queen Mary as a picturesque backdrop.
And if Cher and Josh don’t actually get married at the end, well, another couple does.