Do you know why so many men of my generation don’t like Kevin Kline? It’s simple, he took Phoebe Cates off the market! Not only did he succeed in landing the ultimate 80’s dreamgirl, but then she pretty much retired from making movies to focus on being a wife and a mother. That’s certainly an admirable thing but it severely limited her filmography. Still, no matter what, her place in film history is secure. I don’t mean to get crude here, but I think it’s accurate to say that she is the star of what is probably the most famous topless scene in the past 100+ years of moviemaking. That being the scene where she emerges from the pool in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” That scene certainly caught a lot of people’s attention back in 1982 and it led to her starring in a teen sex comedy the following year…1983’s “Private School.”
“Vulgar” does not even begin to describe this sort of movie. Case in point, the names of the two private schools at the center of the film: Cherryvale Academy for Girls and Freemount (yes, Freemount) Academy for Men. As the film opens we are introduced to three of the boys: handsome Jim (Matthew Modine), geeky Roy (Jonathan Prince), and chubby walking hormone Bubba (Michael Zorek). They have come to Cherryvale for a dance and are engaging in the pre-game activity of standing on each others shoulders to take Polaroid pictures of the girls as they shower and get dressed. Among the girls are Jim’s girlfriend Chris (Cates), her roommate Betsy (Kathleen Wilhoite), and rich girl Jordan (Betsy Russell), who has plans to steal Jim from Chris. The main qualification for girls getting into Cherryvale seems to be the ability to group aerobicize.
Now, what’s odd about the whole premise of the film is that we have these two “private” schools, one for boys and one for girls, yet they seem to do all their activities together. Beyond the dance, the two schools seem to have horse riding class together. This is where Jordan decides to flash her breasts to Jim to draw his attention away from Chris. To get revenge, Betsy rides over and snatches Jordan’s shirt. As she rides off like Lady Godiva, Bubba chases on her on his horse…slobbering and grasping at thin air as he gallops along.
This is what passes for humor here folks. There are a few funny scenes involving Chris and Jim as they have decided to take their relationship all the way. They fumble about as they try to do things like make hotel reservations and buy condoms. Martin Mull has a funny cameo as the pharmacist…remember folks, in 1983 the condoms were kept behind the counter. These moments are few and far between as most of the movie focuses on the characters doing things that would get them sued for sexual harassment or thrown in jail in the real world. I mean, there is one “joke” that would seem to indicate that Bubba engaged with Betsy in what today we would call “date rape.” And she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. Was that ever funny?! The movie even pulls out the old bit where the guys dress as girls to go trolling through the girls dorm.
But, if we can manage to look past the nastiness of the material, I will say that Phoebe Cates is as likeable as ever. You know how they say it’s impossible sneeze and keep your eyes open? Well, it’s also impossible to watch a Phoebe Cates movie and not fall in love with her. Curse you Kevin Kline! Matthew Modine is also appropriately awkward, though I do not care to repeat the experience of seeing him in a dress anytime soon. I’m sure he’s on board with that, as well. As for the supporting players, Betsy Russell does make a good villain, though she was better as the sweet title character in “Tomboy.” And then there’s Michael Zorek, who according to his IMDB biography seems to be an upstanding citizen today…retired from movies, stay at home dad and all that…but sorry dude, Bubba may be one of the most offensive characters ever on film. I forgive you, though.
In the end, I have a feeling that most of the film’s cast wouldn’t list this flick high on their resumes and wouldn’t have a problem with it residing in the realm of forgotten films. But anytime Phoebe Cates wants to return to movies to make amends for this one, we welcome her with open arms.