4Columns returns with a new issue on September 2. This week, we’re fangirling over ’80s teen heroines who are more than meets the eye.
American cinema in the 1980s saw the further entrenchment, begun the decade before, of the blockbuster and the franchise film: Jedis, Raiders, and Ghostbusters—all avatars of industrial moviemaking—dominated the box office. But much smaller, independent productions from the US during that era also gave us another kind of enduring protagonist: complex teenage heroines.
Lou Adler’s cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (1982) tracks the adventures of an adolescent-girl pop-punk trio. As 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson noted in her reappraisal, the Stains are led by “a supremely talented mythologizer” named Corinne Burns, who is played by Diane Lane, then fifteen years old. “Teenagers, like rock stars, thrive on paradox and self-dramatization,” Anderson writes. Corinne exemplifies both, snarling “We’re the Stains, and we don’t put out” at one of the DIY band’s first gigs. “Soon to become the group’s catchphrase, the declaration seems incongruous with its speaker, whose provocative stage outfit consists of a cherry-red see-through blouse, black bikini briefs, and fishnet stockings,” Anderson continues. But “to a pious TV reporter, Corinne explains why the slogan isn’t a contradiction: ‘It means don’t get screwed. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t get had.’ ”
The Stains’ bassist is played by Laura Dern, who turned thirteen during the shoot. Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk from 1985 gave the actress her first lead role, as Connie, a rising high-school sophomore “navigat[ing] her passage out of girlhood and into whatever it is that comes next,” as Michelle Orange writes in her essay on the film. Connie is the source of queasy fascination for Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), a thirtysomething James Dean wannabe who one day shows up at the teenager’s house to coax her to take a ride with him, in the film’s most memorable segment. “Chopra’s deliberate pacing and long, beautifully composed shots culminate in the protracted standoff between Connie and Friend, whose aging-greaser eccentricity Williams embodies as a nightmare of madness and masculine entitlement,” Orange observes. “Dern’s long career as one of cinema’s great reactors was born in this nearly thirty-minute scene, in which her entire being flickers between coquettish intrigue, dark apprehension, and terror. We learn as she does the limits of her imagination, how little Connie’s wishes and even her fears have to do with the likes of Arnold Friend.”
Lane and Dern, of course, would go on to have highly successful careers following their adolescent triumphs. In contrast, Linda Manz, who gave an indelible performance as the teenage Cebe in Dennis Hopper’s brutal 1980 family drama, Out of the Blue, would make just a few more films before retiring for good in 1997. (Manz died in 2020 at age fifty-eight.) “Cebe . . . drifts through her desolate Pacific Northwest environs in an anomic stupor, a handheld tape recorder and a teddy bear her only true companions,” Anderson writes. However rudderless her character may be, Manz consistently holds our attention. “With her coiled, baby-butch swagger, the actress—whose androgynous features uncannily recall those of Jackie Earle Haley and Matt Dillon, two of her male contemporaries—perfectly embodies fragile bravado; pint-size Cebe’s bluster is often negated by her habit of sucking her thumb,” Anderson continues. Out of the Blue ends with a conflagration, an act of detonation set by Cebe—who, just like the actress playing her, can never be extinguished.