It was a sign of the cultural influence of Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s satiric update of Jane Austen’s matchmaking novel Emma, that when I entered middle school in the autumn of 1995, the most popular girls in high school were actually wearing knee-highs with miniskirts in an imitation of Cher Horowitz. It goes without saying that I was not among them. The closest I got to echoing the movie’s iconic style was donning overalls like the ones quickly abandoned by Tai Fraizer, the new girl in school who Cher pronounces “so adorably clueless.”
Brittany Murphy, the actress who played Tai, died yesterday at 32. Though her career had faltered in recent years, and she’d been plagued by tabloid stories about her 2007 marriage to the peculiar British screenwriter Simon Monjack, Murphy’s career actually reached greater heights than those of her Clueless costars, Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash. And her performance in Clueless helped define the role that makeovers would play in a generation of teen movies.
For those of us young enough to have seen our first John Hughes movies not in theaters but in health class, Clueless ushered in an series of flicks where quirky independence mattered more than a family’s finances. The teenagers in Hughes’s The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink spent the duration of each movie agonizing over social hierarchies established by families’ wealth and social positioning. Clueless took a first step towards treating such class-based cliques as outdated. Alicia Silverstone’s affluent and privileged Cher ruled Bronson Alcott high school, but her all-too-successful efforts to improve Tai’s social standing by radically changing her character formed the core of the movie—and the catalyst for Cher’s own character development.
After trying to set Tai up with the rich and smarmy Elton, Cher realized that her new friend was actually better suited to a skateboarder named Travis. That’s roughly where the original Emma ended, but Clueless took the trope even further: Cher found her own popularity eclipsed by Tai’s. Before long, Tai was putting Cher in her place, delivering such immortal lines as “You’re a virgin—who can’t drive!” Tai’s social climbing could have rendered her one-dimensional, but Murphy’s basic sweetness shone through the character and made it entirely believable when Tai threw off the worst effects of Cher’s training to ascend in her own way. Her happiness moved Cher to reexamine her own values, throw herself into a food and clothing drive (she gave disaster victims her skis and caviar), and find love with her former stepbrother, a “Baldwin” even under his flannels and Amnesty International t-shirts.
It was the first in a series of movies that depicted makeovers as unhelpful, or worse, instruments of evil. In 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, a playful takeoff on The Taming of the Shrew, Julia Stiles’ cranky-but-principled Kat Stratford and pseudo-bad boy Patrick Verona tamed each other instead of mashing Kat into subservience. That same year, in the modern-day Pygmalion story She’s All That, Freddie Prinze Jr. took off Rachel Leigh Cook’s glasses and tried to turn her into a prom queen. But he fell for her, glasses and all, and she inspired him to go to art school. And in 2004’s Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan made herself over to infiltrate a clique of popular girls but shed her façade when she realized she’d become “cold, shiny, hard plastic,” evil incarnate in an 11th grader—and that her meanness had led the girl she’d tried to sabotage into the path of a speeding schoolbus.
The female stars of Clueless set the tone for these self-assured heroines, but they never got the careers they deserved. Their male costars went on to significant roles—Paul Rudd continues to star in box-office hits, and even Jeremy Sisto, who played Elton, is anchoring Law & Order now. Meanwhile, Silverstone hasn’t been in a significant movie since Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 remake of Love’s Labour Lost. Stacey Dash’s only other high-profile part was in another Heckerling movie, 2007’s I Could Never Be Your Woman.
Murphy fared a bit better, but not without undergoing a jarring real-life makeover. After strong turns in Girl, Interrupted in 1999 and 8 Mile in 2002, she lost a significant amount of weight and tried to reinvent herself by starring in a string of mediocre but semi-successful romantic comedies. She had more success in voice work, with a long-running role on the animated television show King of the Hill. But her marriage made her a tabloid staple and her erratic behavior brought her negative attention even as it lost her acting work. Murphy’s last notable movie role was a supporting part in 2005’s Sin City.
The girls of my generation may have grown beyond their fleeting desire for knee-highs, and overalls are nowhere to be found in my wardrobe. But in a sense, Murphy never grew beyond her performance as Tai. To watch her in Clueless is to see her at her most joyful and at her funniest. The movie was so sunny that the song that plays over the opening credits, The Muffs’ cover of “Kids In America,” stopped playing before the lines “You know life is cruel / Life is never kind.” But these lines now seem a sadly appropriate coda to Murphy’s untimely death. Onscreen or off, she never quite surpassed the role that launched her career: the endearing and genuine newcomer who rises to the top simply by being herself.