Why we need Clueless’s Cher Horowitz now more than ever

“May I please remind you, it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty.”

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When the organisers of the Cinematologists film podcast asked me to choose a comedy to introduce at The Poly cinema in Falmouth as part of the BFI’s Comedy Genius season, my response was instantaneous. The film left my mouth before I knew what I was saying: “Clueless.”

Had I mulled it over for a few minutes, there would have been numerous contenders: something by Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Elaine May or Aki Kaurismäki; any of Paul Feig’s films with Melissa McCarthy; a masterpiece like Playtime, Young Frakenstein or The Awful Truth. Or perhaps a left-field choice, like the screwball comedy Straight Talk, with Dolly Parton and James Woods – a romantic pairing that makes chalk and cheese seem comparatively indistinct.

But sometimes it’s best to go with your gut. And there are plenty of reasons why Clueless deserves to be seen again in the context of the Comedy Genius season. Amy Heckerling’s sparky high-school romp, a loose and updated adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, is hardly an obscure or under-appreciated movie. It has spawned a TV series, a run of young adult novels and a stage musical. A remake is in the works, scripted by Marquita Robinson of the Netflix series GLOW and produced by Tracy Oliver, one of the writers of Girls Trip. There is even an exhaustive podcast dedicated to the film, As If, which devotes each of its 20-minute episodes (there are 97 in total) to examining a single minute of the movie. Its presenters ponder the eccentricities of British and American slang and discuss how men act with their girlfriends when their mates aren’t around.

Since its release in 1995, Clueless has never been out of circulation – it can be rented, bought, streamed and downloaded. But we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing the film on the small screen, as part of an unchanging menu of viewing choices, that we have stopped seeing Clueless properly. With the exception of an occasional quote-along event at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, Clueless rarely appears at cinemas – precisely because it’s so readily available at home.

Yet the larger format is the only way to properly appreciate Bill Pope’s zinging cinematography, savour Steven J. Jordan’s production design, and recognise Mona May’s costume designs – the weirdest of which are like fireworks displays in fabric form. The unadulterated joy that Heckerling feels for her characters suffuses every aspect of the picture.  A typical viewing for me usually ends with a depressurising facial massage to relieve the inevitable ache from 97 minutes of solid grinning.

The deceptive frivolity of Clueless makes it easy to overlook. Comedy films are often the losers at awards ceremonies. Alicia Silverstone wasn’t considered for any major prizes, despite her expertly sustained performance as Cher Horowitz, the apparent ditz who turns out, much like the film, to be smarter than she appears. While Silverstone won two MTV Movie Awards in 1996, one for Best Female Performance and the other for the questionable category of Most Desirable Female, she wasn’t nominated for Best Actress Oscar.

Had she been in the running, I would have loved to see the reactions of Oscar nominees such as Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon as Silverstone trooped  up the steps to accept the statuette, taking a piece of gum from her mouth, Cher-style, and keeping it poised on her fingertip until finishing her acceptance speech.

And few could have predicted that Silverstone’s character would turn out to be an inspiring opposition to the cruelty of the current US administration. Her stirring speech in favour of immigration – “May I please remind you, it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty” – demonstrates why we need Cher, more now than ever.

Clueless is screening at 7.30pm on 23 January at The Poly Cinema, Falmouth. Tickets are available here.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.