July 20, 2000
Bronx Gal No ‘Loser’
Amy Heckerling has forged a successful film career by combining streetwise humor with likable characters
Only so much can be written about a Jewish girl from the Bronx, says writer-director Amy Heckerling. Only so many scripts can begin, "Interior. Candy Store - Queens."
That's why the New Yorker didn't bother to draw on her own childhood to create her teen zeitgeist films, considered classics of the genre. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," for example, the first of the mall-generation movies, focuses on a clique of California teenagers and begins with an image of a Southland mall.
"Clueless," the tale of Cher Horowitz, a pampered girl who fancies herself more sophisticated than the new kid she takes under her wing, updates Jane Austen's "Emma" to modern-day Beverly Hills.Now comes "Loser," the story of Paul Tannek (Jason Biggs), an impoverished college frosh from the heartland who is considered, well, a loser until he hooks up with another outcast, Dora Diamond (Mena Suvari).
If you can take the girl out of the Bronx, Heckerling concedes, you can't take the Bronx out of the girl. The director, who pronounces the title of her latest film "Loo-zuh," couldn't resist making Cher (Alicia Silverstone) a Horowitz. The character's African-American best friend, Dionne, who like Cher is "named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials," speaks a word or two of Yiddish.In "Johnny Dangerously," Heckerling's gangster-flick spoof, the movie theater candy counter sells popcorn, Jujubes and whitefish.
And in "Loser," Dora Diamond, Paul's unlikely comrade, is named after a real Jewish teenager who changed everything for Heckerling's favorite writer, the nihilistic existentialist Franz Kafka. "Kafka was, like, 40, and he never left home or had a proper relationship with a woman until the very end of his life," says the director, turning off a Woody Allen film to conduct a Journal interview.
"Then he met Dora Dymant, a Zionist who wanted to go to Israel, and she was the first person who really got him to break away from his parents, to live with a woman and to move past adolescence. She was the teenager who got the great Jewish genius to grow up," the director marvels. "I related to the fact that the person who finally saved him was this Jewish teenaged girl."
Heckerling, the daughter of a CPA, was a very different kind of Jewish teenaged girl, one who was hardly as self-assured as the real-life Dymant or the fictional Cher. She was quiet and confused, artistic and alienated. Growing up among Holocaust survivors in the Bronx didn't help, she suggests."My mindset was, the world is a place that doesn't like Jews," says Heckerling, whose Yiddish-speaking grandparents lived two floors up from her parents' modest apartment. "Definitely I grew up thinking that the Holocaust could happen again at any time."
"Beyond awful" is the term Heckerling uses to describe her schools in the Bronx and, later, in Queens, where she felt rather like the befuddled character Ratner in "Fast Times," wondering why everyone else was having fun.
"There was a lot of fighting, not a lot of learning, and the teachers spent most of the time disciplining certain people," says the director, who laughs and corrects herself: "- most of the people. I just wanted to be left alone, to fly below the radar, to draw some pictures."
She escaped to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, where, she recalls, "people did not concentrate on how tough you were or how cute you were or what gang you hung with or how big your breasts were. All that mattered was how good you were at your chosen art." How good was Heckerling? "I sucked," she admits.
Before long, young Amy gave up drawing for filmmaking and began to obsess about how to collect the money for film school at NYU. Her father wasn't about to give her any. "At the time, there was no such thing as a woman director," she says, "so it was a very irrational thing to tell an accountant."
"Loser," the anti-"Clueless," draws upon Heckerling's college years, when she worked three jobs at a time and commuted two hours each way from her parents' home, then on Long Island - "a really big shlep," she says. "My whole life revolved around money. How I was going to get it, how not to spend it," she recalls. "I was jealous of people who could just go to school and live with friends in the dormitories. I could not afford to be concerned with the social life and the material things that many teenagers have and want. I never really felt like a teenager."
" 'Loser,' " she says, is "the story of the people who ... don't have it all, who don't fit in, the sort of lonely outsiders who are not invited to the party."
Ironically, Heckerling, 46, writer-director of the hit "Look Who's Talking," says she "felt more like a teenager" when she was in her 30s and earning enough disposable income for clothes and sundry frivolities. Making movies about teenagers, she admits, has been a way to make up for the youthful years she lost. Heckerling didn't want to talk about the status of women directors in Hollywood. She said she doesn't like to think about gender and showbiz. It doesn't bother her.
What does bother her are all the negative images of Jewish women in film: "I can't stand the loud, pushy, whiny stereotype," Heckerling says. "It makes me ill."
Another pet peeve: Too much "too-Jewish" in the casting process. "You can be Jewish, as long as you're not 'Jewy,' " Heckerling complains.
Can a Jewish woman director make a difference? "I try," says Heckerling, adding that she has written scripts featuring well-rounded Jewish female protagonists. "But you've seen what gets produced, and what doesn't."
Heckerling isn't worried about her daughter's Jewish self-image, however. When 14-year-old Mollie was 6, her favorite TV show was "Rhoda," the series about a street-smart Jewish woman from the Bronx. "She used to run around the house with a schmatte on her head, like it was Rhoda's kerchief," Heckerling recalls, with a laugh. "I think she recognized something."
"Loser" opens today in Los Angeles.