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In the 1980s, the teenage sex comedy dominated the film landscape. It’s really not an exaggeration to state that – for a full decade – the horny, hormone-driven comedies such as Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Hardbodies, Weird Science, Where the Boys Are, Revenge of the Nerds, Class, My Tutor and so many more basically did what comic-book movies are doing today.
And then, just like that, the genre all but went away. The American Pie franchise exists, sure. But that was a throwback tribute to a genre that Hollywood no longer wanted to gamble on. You might get an Easy A with Emma Stone, or an Eighth Grade from Bo Burnham. But these are more intelligent, less offensive, and are few and far between in the tentpole business model.
But why? The decision makes no sense, from this perspective. Movies still rely heavily on teenage audiences buying tickets for mainstream fare. Why not try and make more movies that speak directly to this audience, and the issues they are facing. Back in 1985, director Lisa Gottlieb did just that. She crafted the teen-sex comedy Just One of the Guys, and addressed rampant sexism that female students faced in high school.
The plot was simple. After being turned down for a valuable internship as a newspaper reporter, fledging journalist Terry Griffith (Joyce Hyser) enrolls at the cross-town school, but this time poses as a boy to see if her same piece will earn her the gig. But in revisiting Just One of the Guys for its 35-year anniversary, I realized that it’s a relic of a bygone genre, and I asked Lisa Gottlieb if she had any insight as to why Hollywood has all but given up on this type of storytelling.
Boy, that is such a good question. You know, this was a trend, but it continued on. John Hughes kept it alive a long time. Amy [Heckerling] came back later with Clueless, and just reconfigured it. That's a wonderful movie and a movie that had a great deal of depth. I think the obsession that Hollywood had during the late ‘80s and the ‘90s for the biggest celebrities, you know, paying $20 million to people whose names were worth $20 million. There was a very narrow list of people who would be in movies. What happened was, the studios kind of stopped making the movies that were the $5 to $10 million ones, and started migrating to the big ones with big, big stars, which caused the backlash of the Indie years of the ‘90s. I think it was 1991 when Reservoir Dogs and Robert Rodriguez’s films and Soderbergh changed our world. And then for years, it was Indies.
The film industry certainly is cyclical, with the major studios frequently chasing after the same trend. And Lisa Gottlieb, who currently teaches screenwriting in Florida, is correct when she states that A-listers like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise carried the biggest movies, and audiences steered away from lower-budget fare.
Studios stopped betting on up-and-coming teenage actors like Just One of the Guys co-stars Billy Zabka (fresh off his turn in The Karate Kid) and started leaning on bankable talents at the box office.
In Lisa Gottlieb’s opinion, these shifts killed the culture in which a movie like Just One of the Guys could get made, and find an audience.
Now it’s very hard to get a script for an indie film unless you’re one of the three or four films that really broke out of Sundance. I think it just got lost in the Marvel Universe, and the Lethal Weapon years and the years of ‘What kind of package we can put together with two $20 million dollar actors in the leads?’ I just seem to think that it was a kind of a corporate take, the next corporate takeover of filmmaking. … All the films I was ever developing at the studios were $10 million movies, and they had a lot of them when I got to Hollywood, and that's the rubric under which Fast Times at Ridgemont High got made, and all of the John Hughes movies got made. And he had the number up to $10 million, but then, on a certain day, it was just too expensive to release them and promote them and they just wanted more effects, bigger names, [and] all those guarantees.”
Could the teen sex comedy genre come back around again? Absolutely, with some tweaks. If there’s one thing I noticed while revisiting Just One of the Guys, it’s that the sexist humor might not connect with audiences. (The character of Buddy, played by Billy Jayne, is basically Stifler on steroids.)
But the social commentary that Lisa Gottlieb worked into Just One of the Guys would be relevant in any decade. All it seems to take is a little confidence on the part of the studios to gamble on lesser-known young actors with charisma and chops who can carry a vehicle aimed at teenage audiences. Think of Elsie Fisher when she headlines Eighth Grade, or the Superbad guys when Seth Rogen took a chance on them. The next Sean Penn could be out there, waiting to play Jeff Spicoli for a new generation, so long as a director or producer is willing to give them a chance.
Just One of the Guys celebrates 35 years with a brand new re-release on Blu-ray. The highlight of the bonus material on the new disc is a reunion audio commentary track that features director Lisa Gottlieb along with her Just One of the Guys cast: Arye Gross, Joyce Hyser, Clayton Rohner, Toni Hudson and John Apicella. It’s currently available where Blu-rays are sold.