Strangely, on a whim today I decided to spin my copy of Valley Girl in the old DVD. Such a surprise to learn that today is also the 25th anniversary of Martha Coolidge’s little indie film with wide-reaching appeal. More than most teen films, this low-budget gem, retelling the old tale of Romeo and Juliet in a romance between a Valley girl and a Hollywood high punk, retains its charm and gentle humor. Shot in under a month, it could have been broad slapstick getting mileage out of Frank and Moon Unit Zappa’s novelty hit “Valley Girl” — a Not Another Teen Movie for the 1980s. It ended up with fresh characters (who could forget the parents running the health food store?) and a bona fide star in the young Nicolas Cage. (Elizabeth Daily has also gone on to fame with many club singles, and as an in-demand voice-over artist.)
The L.A. Daily News has an article about the San Fernando Valley’s changing demographics since the film was first released. Star Deborah Foreman, originally a model for Maybelline, now teaches pilates and yoga, after time as a graphic designer and other roles. Foreman generated a lot of the movie’s charm and likability, and cameoed in Coolidge’s other fun teen epic, Reel Genius, which also costarred Valley Girl’s Michelle Meyrink, heroine to a generation of nerds.
And who could forget that music? A mix of gritty power pop and ironic synth-driven pop – it remains one of the best soundtracks of the 20th century, easily holding its own with Saturday Night Fever, Dazed and Confused (another great teen flick that has gained stature in the years since its first release) and American Graffiti. Modern English’s song “I Melt With You” seemed to take on a life of its own, resurrected from the dead years later, after its use in a Burger King commercial!
Interestingly, the opening song, “Girls Like Me,” is from Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo, a critically acclaimed new wave band from San Francisco. Hayes’ music, like the movie itself, is deceptively cute. Very accessible pop, yet unique – Hayes was known for using unusual rhythm and time signatures in her pop songs. You can easily download “Girls Like Me” and “Shelly’s Boyfriend” (another song in Valley Girl) from her website for free, since it’s very hard to get ahold of the songs otherwise – and learn what else Bonnie is doing.
With Richard Widmark’s passing at 93, and announcement of Charlton Heston’s recent death, we’ve lost two more silver screen legends.
As for Heston, one sad bit is that his recent fame (or infamy, depending on your views) working for the National Rifle Association, has overshadowed his legacy of early civil rights activism. And unfortunately, because of the close timing, we have already moved on from honoring Richard Widmark.
Born in Minnesota, Widmark got his start as an radio actor in New York and Chicago — first with a friend, then working steadily in shows like Gangbusters and Inner Sanctum. For him, the big gamble was to walk away after ten years of radio work, to even bigger potential in a little Hollywood film noir called Kiss of Death. While Don Ameche thrived after moving from radio to Hollywood, it hadn’t always worked out for other radio and stage stars: Les Tremayne had trouble finding equivalent success; and arguably the film world, post-Citizen Kane, was not so kind to Orson Welles. Well, the rest is history, with a string of excellent performances in movies like the unusual Panic in the Streets, Halls of Montezuma, Road House, Judgment at Nuremberg and The Bedford Incident.
While Widmark will probably be popularly remembered as a nasty hoodlum from Kiss of Death, in real life he was a stand up character. Sidney Poitier, his costar in No Way Out (1950) still notes Widmark’s warm hospitality and friendship in welcoming him to Hollywood. When they later costarred in Bedford Incident (1965), the ink that signed the federal Civil Rights Act into law was still wet on the paper, and Martin Luther King was now a household name encouraging interracial dialogue… but Poitier and Widmark were already old friends. Widmark was indeed a good egg.
Speaking of friendship, there’s another person of note who passed away recently, whose real life was as heroic and complex as any of Widmark’s greatest roles.
Dith Pran, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist from Cambodia, who helped tell of the “Killing Fields”, died last Sunday of pancreatic cancer at 65. Born near the historic and beautiful temples of Angkor Wat, Dith first trained as a translator, then began working closely with journalists, learning along the way to take photos. In 1972 he met Sidney Schaumberg, a journalist for the New York Times. They worked together for some time, even as the situation in Cambodia deteriorated, and became close friends. At one point Dith saved Schaumberg’s life by convincing soldiers not to shoot. When Phnom Penh, the capital, was overtaken by Khmer Rouge forces, Schaumberg was thrown out of the country, lucky to have survived in one piece. Other journalists, both Cambodian and foreign, were killed under the new regime.
Dith managed to survive the next four years as a virtual slave in the countryside, while Schaumberg agitated for his release and to get news out to the rest of the world of Cambodia’s misery. Under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had begun again at “Year Zero”, and between 1 and 2 million Cambodians – figures vary – died of genocide or starvation. Fifty of Dith’s relatives died during the genocide.
Miraculously, in 1979, Dith was able to escape to Thailand, then with Schaumberg and the New York Times’ help, he started a new life in the United States. His story was chronicled in the movie The Killing Fields.
To the last, with his new organization, and another one he was trying to build, Dith wanted people to know what had happened in Cambodia, and wanted the surviving members of the Khmer Rouge to be brought to justice.
The New York Times has put up a short video called “The Last Word” . It’s worth taking ten minutes out of your day to watch. Dith Pran was a true hero.